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Beyond Structural Listening?

University Cooperative Society Subvention Grant

awarded by The University of Texas at Austin.
Beyond Structural
Postmodern Modes of Hearing


Andrew Dell’Antonio


Berkeley Los Angeles London
University of California Press
Berkeley and Los Angeles, California

University of California Press, Ltd.

London, England

© 2004 by the Regents of the University of California

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Beyond structural listening? : postmodern modes of hearing / edited by

Andrew Dell’Antonio.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-520-23757-9 (cloth : alk. paper)
ISBN 0-520-23760-9 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Musical criticism. 2. Musical analysis. 3. Music—Philosophy and
aesthetics. 4. Music—Social aspects. 5. Postmodernism.
I. Dell’Antonio, Andrew.
ML3880.B49 2004 2004001751
781.1'7—dc22 MN

Manufactured in the United States of America

13 12 11 10 09 08 07 06 05 04
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

The paper used in this publication is both acid-free and totally chlorine-free
(TCF). It meets the minimum requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48–1992
(R 1997) (Permanence of Paper).

preface / vii

Introduction: Beyond Structural Listening?

Andrew Dell’Antonio / 1

1. The Disciplined Subject of Musical Analysis

Fred Everett Maus / 13

2. Musical Virtues
Mitchell Morris / 44

3. The Chosen One’s Choice

Tamara Levitz / 70

4. Beethoven Antihero: Sex, Violence, and the Aesthetics of Failure,

or Listening to the Ninth Symphony as Postmodern Sublime
Robert Fink / 109

5. Passion/Mirrors (A Passion for the Violent Ineffable: Modernist Music

and the Angel / In the Hall of Mirrors)
Paul Attinello / 154

6. Uncertainty, Disorientation, and Loss as Responses to Musical Structure

Joseph Dubiel / 173

7. Collective Listening: Postmodern Critical Processes and MTV

Andrew Dell’Antonio / 201

8. One Bar in Eight: Debussy and the Death of Description

Elisabeth Le Guin / 233

9. The Return of the Aesthetic: Musical Formalism and Its Place in

Political Critique
Martin Scherzinger / 252
Afterword: Toward the Next Paradigm of Musical Scholarship
Rose Rosengard Subotnik / 279

bibliography 303

list of contributors / 319

index / 323

This project probably has its roots in a long conversation I had with Rose
Rosengard Subotnik at the 1990 AMS/SMT/SEM meeting in Oakland, Cal-
ifornia. Through the ensuing decade and a half, other conversations with
many friends and colleagues—among them the authors of this collection—
brought about a collective interest in exploring the formulations on struc-
tural listening that Rose had first articulated in the Meyer Festschrift. When
the essay was republished in Rose’s second collection, Deconstructive Varia-
tions, the topic took on new urgency; shortly thereafter, my conversations
intensified, and eventually led to my approaching the University of Califor-
nia Press with a proposal for a collection of essays.
In the process of its formation, the collection has changed (developed?):
the cast of characters is slightly different than that originally envisioned, the
title—and even the content—of more than one of the essays has metamor-
phosed beyond the expectations of its author. . . or its editor. These are
probably consequences of the dialogical (dare one say dialectical?) nature
of the project, of which this collection is one synchronic manifestation. Most
gratifying to me is the fact that our collective dialogue has expanded beyond
the boundaries of these essays—we have learned from each other, and have
found much common ground, and many fruitful points of disagreement. In
the process, I have gained even more respect for my fellow authors than I
had before, and I thank them again for their articulateness and willingness
to engage in this continuing discussion.
In a collection such as this, it is most appropriate to let the authors make
their own acknowledgments, and we have done so in each individual essay.
However, I will take the editor’s prerogative to give some much-deserved
overall thanks.
The University of Texas Cooperative Society provided a crucial subven-
viii preface

tion grant, without which the collection could not have been published in
this form. Mary Francis supplied unwavering editorial guidance and invalu-
able support in navigating the shoals that invariably face editors of complex
collections such as this one. Ruth Solie and Nicholas Cook took time to offer
detailed and constructive suggestions on an earlier version of the typescript,
and much credit for the resulting improvements goes to them. Without Rob
Walser’s backing and enthusiasm for the project, the collection would not
have come to fruition as you see it today. Adam Krims’s wise counsel and
insight carried me through many a rough spot. My colleagues’ encourage-
ment—especially that of Elizabeth Crist, David Neumeyer, Jim Buhler, Sarah
Reichardt, and Dennis Rathnaw—made balancing this venture with other
professional duties a pleasure. And the contribution of my family—Lella,
Lester, Gianfausto, Ian, Barbara, and especially Susan and Miriam—to my
emotional and intellectual balance can never be quantified.
None of this would have been possible without Rose Rosengard Subotnik.
This collection is not the Festschrift she still amply deserves, but perhaps its
dialectical spirit—and, yes, unresolved conflicts—are a worthy tribute to the
influence she has had on us, and on the discipline of musicology.

Andrew Dell’Antonio
Austin, Texas
December 2003

Beyond Structural Listening?

Postmodern Modes of Hearing
andrew dell ’ antonio

Beyond structural listening? It may not be entirely to our advantage to idealize

a listening stance that leaves structure in its wake, as Martin Scherzinger
observes at the close of his essay. Yet inasmuch as the “structural listening”
model—as described by Rose Subotnik first in the Meyer Festschrift and later
in her Deconstructive Variations—is a disciplinary commonplace in the aca-
demic study of Western art music, and a pedagogical staple of undergradu-
ate education in music history and theory, the essays in this collection follow
Subotnik’s lead in questioning the universality of that model as a yardstick
of aesthetic (and moral) value; we believe that our explorations have taken
us “beyond” the structural parameters outlined by Subotnik.
Postmodern modes of hearing? How do our essays, with their diversity of tar-
get repertories, critical stances, and theoretical frameworks, all fit into a
“postmodern” approach—and in what way do they all represent “modes of
hearing”? Several common threads in these essays mark them as proceeding
from a common perspective, one that is incommensurate with modernist
interpretations of the status of knowledge (hence potentially postmodern);
each essay is also concerned with the act of close engagement with specific
musical “works” (though several of the essays address the potential pitfalls
inherent in associating a textual notion of “work” with musical phenomena),
and with the problems that arise when the process of hearing is approached
through alternative paradigms.
We should in any case begin with our collective starting point: for while
these essays reflect a multiplicity of critical and analytical agendas, rhetorical
stances, and repertories chosen for analytical inquiry, we all share an intel-
lectual flashpoint: the notion of “structural listening” as developed by Rose
Rosengard Subotnik (1996).1 Subotnik critiques what she calls the historical
tradition of structural listening, which she sees as originating primarily with
2 andrew dell ’ antonio

Schoenberg and Adorno, and becoming the prevalent aesthetic paradigm in

Germanic and Anglo-American musical scholarship. In her usage, the term
designates an approach to listening that considers musical works as
autonomous structures defined “wholly through some implicit and intelligi-
ble principle of unity.”2 Structural listeners who believe in the autonomous
art work believe also in the “possibility of reasoned musical discourse,” and
thus seek to find “objectively determinable” “interconnectedness of struc-
ture” based on “concretely unfolding logic” and on the “self-developing
capacity of a motivic-thematic kernel” (Subotnik 1996, 154; 156). This leads
them to “end by locating musical value wholly within some formal sort of
parameter, to which it is the listener’s business to attend” (153). In that they
“look upon the ability of a unifying principle to establish the internal ‘neces-
sity’ of a structure as tantamount to a guarantee of musical value” (159), they
have been able to use structural listening as a means to judge not only the
value of musical works, but also their place in the musical canon. Such a
place is guaranteed not only by artistic value but also by moral value, con-
sidered as inextricably linked: “The more a musical structure approximates
the self-contained intelligibility characteristic of logic, the more it can and
does free itself from what Adorno sees as the deceptions or falsehoods
inevitably fostered through social ideology in order to maintain the power
of existing institutions” (154).
Ultimately, intellectual rigor and discipline are at the heart of the “con-
tract” between composer and listener that Subotnik identifies at the core of
the structural listening paradigm; and here it is apropos to quote Subotnik
at some length:

The concept of structural value offered by Schoenberg and Adorno, like their
concept of the structural listening that can discern such value, is at once exact-
ing and generous. Demanding an unflagging intelligent concentration on the
part of the listener, these men require of the composer, and more generally of
themselves, a no less stringent standard of discipline. For Schoenberg these two
[structural rigor and expressive capacity] are virtually synonymous: the deep-
est emotional satisfaction in music arises precisely through the achievement of
an intensely expressive structural integrity (which is “independent of style and
flourish” and communicable at least to those whose “artistic and ethical culture
is on a high level”). (155)

The ethical dimension of structural listening is thus deeply enmeshed within

its ideal of organic necessity: music that is “good” (both ethically and aes-
thetically) will reveal its quality to a disciplined listener who is prepared and
willing to receive the composer’s coherent structural message in its full
detail. As Subotnik points out, this mandate requires a very specific notion
of listening, one that can only be gained through technical training and seri-
introduction 3

ous self-discipline; such training and self-discipline, in their turn, are the
mark of an aesthetically prepared and culturally elevated individual.
But, as Subotnik observes, the notion of “listening” that emerges from this
paradigm is potentially detachable from the sense of hearing:

Even more important, perhaps, is the secondary status that [structural] listen-
ing accords to the musical parameter of sound . . . Certainly, to an important
extent, structural listening can take place in the mind through intelligent
score-reading, without the physical presence of an external sound-source . . .
By Adorno’s account, in fact, “mature music,” which concerns itself with that
“subcutaneous” structure where individual integrity can hope to resist or even
transcend social ideology, “becomes suspicious of sound as such.” [Adorno
imagines] a time when “the silent, imaginative reading of music could render
actual playing as superfluous as speaking is made by the reading of written
material.” (161–62)

Structural listening thus seeks to transcend the potential sloppiness and

impreciseness inherent in the physical manifestations of sound; the written
score is seen (!) as having more integrity than any sonic realization of the
musical work, and as more indicative of the creative process of the composer,
which manifests itself through the structural necessity and organic com-
pleteness of the musical ideas that unfold from the beginning to the end of
a musical work.
Indeed, structural listening is closely linked with legitimacy through com-
positional intent, since “structural listening is an active mode that, when suc-
cessful, gives the listener the sense of composing the piece as it actualizes
itself in time” (150). Paradoxically, however, compositional intent is under-
played; the suggestion instead is that meaning is immanent in the composi-
tional structure itself. “Both Schoenberg and Stravinsky celebrate the activ-
ity of musical construction,” suggests Subotnik, “and would confine musical
meaning within the boundaries of the individual composition, exclusive of
contextual relationships and (at least in theory) of intent” (152). The com-
position is here conceived of as a “readable text,” one that is stable and iden-
tifiable and—when properly constructed—creates its own internal necessity
through structure.
Subotnik is highly critical of the tradition of structural listening she thus
defines. In the spirit of the subject of her study, Adorno, she voices her cri-
tique in the preliminary terms of what at first seems to be a dialectic, by
defining the abstract, rational structures of structural listening in opposition
to what she calls “sound” or “style,” which she equates with aspects of music
as diverse as “medium,” “history,” and corporeality (149, 162, 168). Setting
up this polarity allows Subotnik not only to link her arguments to historical
debates over form and content in art, but also to situate her structural lis-
teners in opposition to the most historically and ethically meaningful aspects
4 andrew dell ’ antonio

of music. Subotnik maintains, for example, that structural listeners ignored

the “massive evidence of the degree to which the communication of ideas
depends on concrete cultural knowledge, and on the power of signs to con-
vey a richly concrete open-endedness of meaning through a variety of cul-
tural relationships” (167). She concludes that the damage wrought by half a
century of structural listening can be corrected only through the develop-
ment of “critical methods or . . . a critical language” for investigating the
neglected dialectical pole of sound or style, with which musicologists will
finally be able to determine “the social and moral significance of the values
discerned in music” (171).
Subotnik’s analysis of structural listening is largely aimed at defining the
broad philosophical terms of engagement that have motivated discourse
about music in the twentieth century. In order to make her readers aware of
the key binarisms operative in modern musicological thought, she rejects
close readings of historical and theoretical texts in favor of a broad overview
of concepts established by summarizing the common denominators in the
work of Schoenberg, Adorno, and Stravinsky. As our readers will discover,
the authors of this collection do not necessarily concur with Subotnik’s con-
clusions about “stylistic listening,” or the necessity of a polar binarism
between “structure” and “style” (see especially the essays by Levitz and
Scherzinger). The presence of such a binarism in Anglo-American musical
discourse is, however, one of Subotnik’s central insights; and it is one that has
proved crucial for our collective forays in directions “beyond” Subotnik’s for-
mulation of the structural listening paradigm.

Subotnik suggests that structural listening is a deeply modernist phenome-

non. How might we start identifying the traits of some specifically “post-
modern” alternatives? Jean-François Lyotard has pointed to the “erosion of
the legitimacy principle of knowledge” as one of the key features of a stage
in the systems of communication that he characterizes as “postmodern”
(Lyotard 1984, 39). Postmodern models of knowledge, according to
Lyotard, question the modernist concept of “knowledge for its own sake,”
inherently aimed at the understanding of deep and enduring truth-content;
rather, such models are dialogic, based on constant negotiations (which
Lyotard calls “language-games”) around the definition and legitimacy of
knowledge-systems. Lyotard underlines that the goal of the postmodern dia-
logic ideal of knowledge is not consensus (under one “legitimate” interpre-
tation with clear truth-value) but constant negotiation between different and
sometimes incommensurate models, each of which is defined by its histori-
cal/social/cultural context. Thus one of the key principles underlying the-
ories of postmodern knowledge is the impossibility of stable truth; Slavoj
Zizek finds the idea of a “central impossibility” of knowledge through the psy-
introduction 5

choanalytical theories of Lacan, and Lyotard locates it in the proliferation of

information in the post-industrial age, but both concur on the destabilizing
effects this new perspective can have on established notions of subjectivity,
objectivity, and the possibilities of intellectual control or mastery (Zizek
1991b, 141 ff.; Lyotard 1984, esp. 65 ff.).

Some common threads in our essays seem to resonate strongly with these
“postmodern” approaches to knowledge (and our readers will doubtless find
other threads when reading these essays as a group):
control 1: questioning mastery. [Maus, Morris, Levitz, Dubiel,
Scherzinger; strong resonances in Fink, Attinello] What is our goal when we
listen, structurally or otherwise? Echoing Subotnik’s characterization of the
“ideal structural listener,” Maus offers us a snapshot of Allen Forte self-con-
sciously “modeling” the ideal theorist, who organizes time though analysis in
much the same way that a composer organizes time through music; music
and analysis are both “the product of a controlled, rational, masterful
agency,” and in this way working through an analytical chart “feels like” com-
posing, helping us connect to the truth of the compositional process and the
persona of the composer (see also Power and Personas, below). As Maus
observes, mastery is key for Forte since the field of music theory must pre-
sent itself as scientifically valid and deserving of high estimation during its
formative period, a time when high modernist valuing of science was still at
a peak. As Morris points out, the mastery of structural listening and/or analy-
sis has a clear moral value: such a practice reflects autonomy and internal
development, but also originality and expressivity, drawing explicit parallels
with two of the ideals of modernist selfhood: “atomistic individualism” and
“disengaged instrumental reason.” According to Morris (who is drawing on
Subotnik’s characterizations), in the modernist structural model “music
occupies itself with moral thought and action in ways that strongly resemble
the ways in which human beings occupy themselves with thought and action”
(see p. 51). Levitz comes to similar conclusions about the importance of
static models and comprehensive explanatory gestures in analyses of the
danse sacrale from Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps by Boulez, Forte, and van den
Toorn. Departing from Subotnik’s characterization of structural listening as
score-bound, Dubiel argues that the most productive way to approach struc-
ture is through the listening experience itself, rather than through fulfill-
ment of pre-existing organicist models; he finds that listening for structural
events is not about mastery, but about “responsiveness along unforeseen
lines,” or “elusiveness of perception” (see p. 176). Rather than following the
established tradition of placing high value and emphasis on musical details
that are developed or “fulfilled” in the unfolding of the musical work,
Dubiel tries dwelling on “unfulfilled” or unexplainable musical events, and
6 andrew dell ’ antonio

his analyses reflect his experiments with the release of intellectual mastery
in the analytical process. The notion of “structural listening,” Dubiel sug-
gests, can best be thought of as a way of thinking about listening rather than
a way of listening; he examines examples in which he has difficulty “hearing”
specific details despite his ability to recognize them on the musical score, and
pointedly questions what it might mean to “hear” or to “listen” given these
paradoxical circumstances; indeed, listening for specific details might result
in confusion or disorientation rather than mastery, and this might be a valu-
able interpretative strategy to learn to deploy. In any case, the lack of coher-
ence in an analytical endeavor should not be seen as a weakness, but rather
as a potential opening for new insights. Scherzinger comes to a similar con-
clusion; seeing Subotnik’s definition as too limiting, and wanting to define
musical structure more broadly as the “opening of possibilities,” he suggests
that “open-ended” approaches to structure can be effectively used in desta-
bilizing established notions of the canon “from within”; he suggests that such
critiques are no less politically progressive than critiques “from without” that
dismiss structure as a progressive tool.
control 2: pleasure, pain, and the sublime. [Fink, Attinello;
strong resonances in Dubiel, Maus] Like Dubiel, Fink specifically challenges
the notion of control, finding potential in the pleasure-through-pain of the
sublime, and specifically in the potential for the “revelation of unspeakable
content” behind the moments when a formal process can be perceived as
hurtling toward failure; returning to the now-infamous image evoked by
Susan McClary of the recapitulation of the first movement in Beethoven’s
Ninth Symphony as akin to a “rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release,”
Fink traces a long tradition of controversy surrounding that musical episode,
and argues that the “beautifiers” who wish to hear that moment as non-prob-
lematic are at least matched, and perhaps out-argued, by those “sublimators”
who feel the frustration and pain of the musical gestures as inherent in the
sublime power of Beethoven’s approach. We can hear the passage as unprob-
lematic, Fink suggests, but what do we lose by such a decision? Has modernist
criticism, in its search for organic solutions, dismissed the power of disrup-
tion that many listeners experience as supremely meaningful in this and
other music? Attinello argues that the disruptive power of the sonic sublime
is a key component of much postwar avant-garde music, and suggests that the
scientific metaphors of control and organization deployed by Boulez and
composers of the Darmstadt school can mask the crucial preoccupation in
this music with the power of the “violent ineffable”—of sound that threatens
to “crack open the sky.” He proposes that listeners try to focus on the sonic
disruption that is created by such ostensibly detached procedures, and to
dwell on the paradox created by those two apparently opposed affective
states, rather than on the more explicit rhetoric of compositional mastery.
introduction 7

Maus traces the aesthetic implications of an analytical discourse of control,

finding parallels between the language of self-abnegation and submission
used by musical analysts and the pleasure/pain dynamics of sadomasochis-
tic sensuality; what is missing in analytical discourse, Maus suggests, is the
flexibility and power-sharing that sadomasochistic role-playing offers within
its (sometimes extreme) discourse of control and submission (see also Nego-
tiations of Power 2, below).
negotiations of power 1: political/social contexts of ana-
lytical power. [Levitz, Dell’Antonio, Scherzinger] Theories of post-
modern knowledge (see, for example, Zizek 1991b, 144–45) suggest that the
significance of an artistic work or phenomenon is not simply inherent in that
work, but strongly shaped by the individuals who are using that phenome-
non as a means to gain power/prestige (moral, intellectual, or otherwise).
Levitz unpacks the “erasure” of the subjectivity of the Chosen One in Stravin-
sky’s Sacre, examining the analytical apparatus that effectively allowed
Stravinsky and his historiographers to rewrite the creative process of the
Sacre, eliminating the role played by the dancer and choreographer Nijinsky,
and leading to a misogynistic vision that distorts the impact of the work as a
ballet. Dell’Antonio draws on Gramsci’s cultural critique and on Jameson’s
perspective of postmodern aesthetics, and sees potential in the symbolic as
viable context of contestation in post-industrial society, specifically through
its reflection in the development of an ideal of “collective listening” (relying
on immersion rather than critical distance, negotiation rather than stability
of meaning) in the context of music videos and MTV. Scherzinger rejects a
“turn against the aesthetic” that he sees in much contemporary critique of
formal analysis, observing that formalist analyses can be used as the starting
point for progressive political projects, and that the “business of analysis” is
not a transcendent process (despite its characterization as such by both pro-
ponents and detractors) but a social activity, potentially value-neutral and
thus not inherently suspect.
negotiations of power 2: power and personas. [Maus, Morris,
Dell’Antonio, Attinello] To his investigation of Forte’s strategies (see Ques-
tioning Mastery above), Maus counterposes the perspective of Edward Cone,
who argues that active listening requires absorption/identification into an
outside persona (generally perceived as a creation of the composer). While
these may seem to be two opposite approaches—Forte’s model of working
through an analytical chart “feels like composing,” Cone’s model of listening
abandons control in ultimate passivity—both cases, Maus suggests, invoke an
“eroticized power relationship between personas and listeners”; but while
both models seem to imply a fixed relationship of mastery and subservience,
could the power relationship be made fluid/negotiable, and if so, how? For
Morris, this is the specific value in thinking of “musical virtues.” Virtues, Mor-
8 andrew dell ’ antonio

ris suggests, assist us in negotiating our place within an authority-based social

configuration. If absorption into a controlling persona is achieved through
structural listening, with the goal of taking on or “being the same as” the com-
positional agency, focusing on the inconsistencies, lacks, or contradictions in
the music can help locate the difference between the listener and a putative
homogeneous “composer’s voice,” which Morris sees as a more compelling
“musical virtue” for the twenty-first century; he provides three examples
(from Brahms, Reich, and Nine Inch Nails) of analytical “moments” to illus-
trate his suggestion. Dell’Antonio takes a different perspective, approaching
the issue from the collective reception practices modeled by MTV: the dia-
logues that are inherent in such practices permit negotiations about musical
and multimedia meanings that allow changing identifications with the musi-
cal and broader cultural message perceived through the videos. In a wider
frame, Attinello asks: why do we feel compelled to echo the notion of mastery
in our own writings about music? Is it still a “virtue” to deny that academic
inquiry arises from personal, subjective passion? How can we justify giving a
scientific/modernist tinge to writing that is subjectively crafted, given the illu-
sory nature of objectivity in any analysis, if any description of music that is
designed to guide an interpretative process is going to provide more than
“just facts”? Can we learn to distinguish, in our subjective descriptions, the
“generalizable” from the “private”?
reclaiming the body. [Levitz, Morris, Maus, Attinello, Le Guin; res-
onances in Dell’Antonio] Structural listening highlights intellectual
response to music to the almost total exclusion of human physical pres-
ence—whether that of the performer or that of the listener; several of the
essays in this collection purposefully address the physicality of musical expe-
rience. Levitz considers the physicality inherent in Nijinsky’s choreographic
creation of the Chosen One, and how that physicality creates a “dialogue”
with Stravinsky’s musical characterization of the Sacrifice; an erasure of that
physicality changes not only the ballet’s message but also the implications of
the Rite of Spring as “absolute music.” Morris chooses to highlight physical
components in his analyses to underline the importance of embodiment to
his notion of musical “virtues”; he argues that such physicality is crucial for
a critical approach that values individuals over totalizing models. Attinello
dwells on the physicality of the modernist sublime, and further reflects on
the essential component of physical subjectivity that musical scholarship
may well continue to ignore at its own peril; and indeed, Maus remarks on
the implicit but intense physicality underlying the language of twentieth-cen-
tury analysis (see also Control 2, above). In reporting on her listening exper-
iment, Le Guin specifically addresses her awareness of physical responses
that is made possible—or certainly more intense—by the withdrawal of the
score or other written material as a structuring aide-mémoire; she draws on
introduction 9

Bergson in exploring the usefulness and limitations of kinesthetic responses

to musical immediacy, and their influence on synoptic models of musical
listening and the musical “text”. [Levitz, Le Guin, Dell’Antonio;
resonances in Dubiel, Maus] Can we separate “listening” from other modes
of experience? While structural listening appears to rely on a musical
“object” that can be “read” in its organic linear unfolding, and conventional
analytical practice likewise relies on a fixed musical “text” that can be read
either in whole or in part (and even non-linearly) like a literary text, conflicts
can arise between the process of hearing/listening and a thus-characterized
musical “text”: Musical notation can offer information that cannot be heard;
musical performance (and multimedia) can provide more than just sonic
experience; music can be heard only linearly; and musical works or perfor-
mances are often experienced partially or incompletely. Levitz observes that
the removal of the choreographic element from critical commentary on the
Sacre allowed Adorno (and the long tradition of analysis that follows him) to
dismiss the “chosen one” as an ego-less creature, a powerless victim of the
musical necessity of the work. It was precisely the notion of listening as
detachable from other forms of information-gathering about the Sacre that
created the impression of powerlessness that allowed critics to dismiss the
work as “fascist.” Confronting the notion of a work of music as a “text,” Le
Guin examines the common analytical trope of “faith in description”—the
notion that verbal description can provide a useful account to focus listen-
ing practice—and by restricting her experiments to listening (without the
visual stimulus of the score or of a live performer) outlines her failures and
frustrations, as well as her tendencies to create both physical and visual asso-
ciations that make her experience no longer one of “pure listening.” Le
Guin also explores how description and aesthetic immediacy may under-
mine each other, asking whether “accounting for” all musical details is even
desirable (let alone possible), and suggesting that it may be the
analyst/critic’s job to “rejoice in the incompleteness” of the analysis, since
“complete description is . . . fundamentally unsuited to how people think,
and remember, and understand” (see p. 250). Dell’Antonio, also examining
a repertory and listening practice that is grounded in immediacy, dwells on
the specific multimedia character of MTV videos, and the challenge that
such works present to the notion of “text,” both from the perspective of per-
formance and from the perspective of structural completeness or coherence.
He broadens his critical scope to explore the possibility that the “element of
the ‘structural listening’ dyad most susceptible to deconstruction may not be
the adjective, but the gerund” (see p. 222)—that “listening” itself may be a
concept worth contesting, since notions of primacy of the autonomous and
organically structured musical work depend on the desirability of perceiving
10 andrew dell ’ antonio

a musical work as autonomous, a desirability that is strongly dependent on

historically contingent (perhaps specifically modernist) notions of subjec-
tivity and objectivity.

In our analyses, we find that structure can often be immanently meaningful:

to give just one example, Levitz describes the musical organization of the
danse sacrale as crucial—once the physicality of Nijinsky’s dance is rein-
stated—to the historical and aesthetic meaning of the work. But if (per Fink’s
discussion, see p. 113ff.) the standard modernist approach is to “explain
away” inconsistencies, revealing the organic unity of the stable masterwork,
our approach is fairly uniformly to dwell on the impossibility (and undesir-
ability) of complete integration—as Dubiel describes it, “disorientation and
loss”—or even the “death of description,” the actual impossibility of the
descriptive endeavor. In this “gap” (what Zizek [1991b] might describe as a
Lacanian “blot,” the unknowable Real making its presence felt while simul-
taneously revealing its inaccessibility to human understanding) the authors
of this collection find various facets of what Fink describes as the “postmod-
ern sublime”: the expressive, emotional, and semiotic power sparked by the
realization that structural coherence is an impossibility. In several of our
essays, the awareness of such an impossibility intersects with a questioning
of subjective insight: Attinello confronts the postmodern divide explicitly
(even bluntly) through the self-conscious “gap” and the self-reflecting “mir-
rors” in his essay, but other authors—most notably Dubiel and Le Guin, but
several others as well—present reflections on the deceptive nature of per-
ception and knowledge that resonate strongly with postmodern philosoph-
ical and epistemological theories within which, as Thomas Docherty puts it,
“rather than knowing the stable essence of a thing, we begin to tell the story
of the event of judging it, and to enact the narrative of how it changes con-
sciousness and thus produces a new knowledge” (Docherty 1993, 25).
Indeed, if structural listening is most suited (as Subotnik suggests) for the
aesthetic validation of a limited set of coherent and stable musical texts, our
essays attempt to capture a more fluid process of assessment that might avoid
the canonic circularity inscribed by structural listening, opening possibilities
for new parameters in the aesthetic and cultural/social valuation of music.
If postmodernism has been seen as questioning metanarratives (not only
those connected with “enlightenment progress,” but also Marxist, Freudian,
Darwinist teleologies) then our essays are “postmodern” through their com-
mon suspicion of organic unity as a characteristic immanent in a musical
work, and thus a rejection of the structural listening that Subotnik describes,
as a possible, or even a desirable, paradigm of fruition. For some—indeed
most—of us this means not rejecting the possibility of structural perception,
but rather reassessing the potential for structure to signify outside models of
introduction 11

organic unity—indeed, to signify most powerfully when it creates uncer-

tainties or contradictions. We have no grand project to offer—save perhaps
our collective conviction that listening is a political and ethical act, and that
an awareness of the diversity of interpretative strategies that we have sug-
gested in these pages can mitigate the hegemony—and the hubris—of the
totalist/organicist listening project unpacked by Subotnik. Explicitly
invoked by Dell’Antonio, evoked by Morris in his call for “musical virtues,”
the politics of listening are implicit throughout this volume, for the acknowl-
edgment of manipulation of power contains within it an implicit demand for
justice. But how can we achieve this justice? In each of our essays there are
calls for alternative political/ethical strategies of listening, criticism, or
analysis. We will consider ourselves successful to the extent that our sugges-
tions will encourage others to continue expanding the possibilities of per-
ception in the critical study and evaluation of musical repertories.
Several chroniclers of the postmodern have suggested that postmod-
ernism is not a chronologically separate “way of knowing” from modernism;
Lyotard opines that postmodernism is “modernism in its nascent state,”
while Zizek suggests that postmodernism precedes modernism, the latter
being an attempt to establish a coherent symbolic order as a response to the
potential disruptiveness of the central impossibility of knowledge that the
postmodern perspective would imply (Lyotard 1984, 79; Zizek 1991b, 145
and passim). Indeed, Dell’Antonio argues that the rhetoric of Schumann’s
pioneering musical criticism resonates strongly with contemporary post-
modern strategies, and Fink suggests that the sublime-focused aesthetics of
the “nascent modernism” of the early nineteenth century were dismissed by
the beauty-focused “full-blown modernist” critics of the following genera-
tions. Given that these two approaches to knowledge are complementary
and rely on their mutual opposition for their power, we can now come full
circle and read our proposed “beyond” of structural listening not as a
chronological displacement but as a multi-dimensional reconfiguration.
Seeping outside modernist parameters of organic structure and mastery of
coherence, overflowing the plane of objectivity and artistic autonomy, the
essays in this collection experiment with incoherence, discontinuity, situat-
edness, alienation, and subjectivity as features of the listening experience—
but perhaps these features can be seen as “structural” after all. Indeed, it is
our hope that these excursions “beyond” can inform a broader understand-
ing of musical structure, one that allows direct engagement with the musi-
cal event/work without relying on teleological or totalizing models.

1. Rose Rosengard Subotnik, “Toward a Deconstruction of Structural Listening:
A Critique of Schoenberg, Adorno, and Stravinsky,” in Subotnik 1996, 148–76; a pre-
12 andrew dell ’ antonio

vious version of this essay appeared in Narmour and Solie 1988. Much of the discus-
sion of Subotnik’s argument that follows owes its articulation to an earlier version of
Tamara Levitz’s article for this collection; I would like to thank her for her incisive-
ness and insight.
2. Subotnik 1996, 158. Subotnik traces the principle of work autonomy so essen-
tial to structural listening back to a passionate eighteenth-century debate that found
its most influential resonance in Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft. She believes that it was
Kant who convinced scholars for over two hundred years of the importance of judg-
ing the art work in itself, according to its own Zweckmäßigkeit and independently of
other realms of knowledge. This led to what is often almost casually, and sometimes
incorrectly, labeled “formalism” in music theory in the twentieth century. See also
Subotnik 1991.

The Disciplined Subject of

Musical Analysis
fred everett maus

[Schenker’s achievement] may be likened to a particular kind of high-level achieve-

ment in science: the discovery or development of a fundamental principle which then
opens the way for the disclosure of further new relationships, new meanings. Regarded
in this way, Schenker’s achievement invites comparison with that of Freud. Just as
Freud opened the way for a deeper understanding of the human personality with his
discovery that the diverse patterns of overt behavior are controlled by certain under-
lying factors, so Schenker opened the way for a deeper understanding of musical struc-
ture with his discovery that the manifold of surface events in a given composition is
related in specific ways to a fundamental organization.
allen forte

strange echo
Allen Forte’s essay “Schenker’s Conception of Musical Structure” comments
on a graphic analysis by Heinrich Schenker, in order to exemplify
Schenker’s approach to tonal music. In a typical remark, he paraphrases
Schenker’s sketch: “Schenker then shows how this initial prolongation is fol-
lowed by a restatement.”
Then he does something odd. In the next sentence, Forte writes: “To reca-
pitulate, there are two prolongational classes shown in this background
sketch” (12–13). The odd part is the echo between “restatement” and “reca-
pitulation,” and the way the words resonate across the obvious distinction
between the music and Forte’s own text. The music, interpreted by Schenker,
restates; immediately after, Forte the theorist recapitulates. The words have
almost the same meaning, though they refer to different things—one a musi-
cal event, the other an event in Forte’s text. Curiously, Forte applies the con-
cept “restatement” to the music and “recapitulation” to his own words. This
reverses the more natural pairing, as though to emphasize (through the
rhetorical figure of chiasmus) a symmetry or mirroring between media.
Why would this echo or mirroring occur? Many people, reading the essay,
might not be puzzled by this: it is easy to ignore such a detail of language,
14 fred everett maus

not allowing it to distract from the “content” of the essay. You might not reg-
ister it consciously or, perhaps, you might enjoy it as a rather subdued form
of wit, as decoration. But what if you want to take that bit of matching more
seriously, rather than setting it aside? What if you want to include it as part
of the message of the essay? What context of other passages in Forte’s essay,
and of broader considerations about music theory, could make this play of
“restatement” and “recapitulation” more than a mishap or a small joke?

identifying the music theorist

From the late 1950s on, the field of music theory and analysis enjoyed rapid
professionalization and growth in North America. The Journal of Music The-
ory, first published in 1957, and Perspectives of New Music, appearing in 1962,
promoted the image of a sophisticated scholarly field devoted to technical
theory and analysis, with its main focus on tonal and post-tonal music. In
1977, formation of the Society for Music Theory embodied this image in a
distinct professional society, now for many scholars the primary professional
affiliation just as other scholars affiliate primarily with the American Musi-
cological Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, and so on. For about half
a century, “music theorist” has been a professional identity. Schools, jour-
nals, and scholarly societies seem to agree that a theory specialization con-
stitutes one way of being professional about music.
What is a music theorist—specifically, what is a later twentieth-century
North American professional music theorist? What is this identity, and why
might someone identify with it? I want to suggest a partial answer through close
attention to a classic of mid-century writing, the famous Forte essay from which
I just quoted. First published in 1959, it holds a strategic position near the begin-
ning of the recent professionalization of scholarly theory. It offers to inaugu-
rate responsible, informed discussion of the early twentieth-century theorist
Heinrich Schenker’s ideas, in place of the disorganized, inadequately informed
polemical writings of the past. It proposes, therefore, to create and circulate an
image of a particular kind of person, a responsible, intelligent music theorist.
In framing an identity, proposing a role model, this text not only says “Read and
evaluate the following claims,” but also: “Be like me. Do as I do.” And, of course,
“Write like this.” What is the rhetoric of this performative, inaugural essay?
One remarkable, even breathtaking aspect of the essay is the calm assur-
ance with which Forte refers to the discipline of music theory, evoking a
coherent, purposeful area of research at a time when almost none of the
present institutional structures of music theory existed. Many of Forte’s ref-
erences to music theory are abstract. There are exceptions; in several pas-
sages at the beginning of the essay, he writes as though music theorists are a
social group of actual people, interacting in shared discourse. He mentions
the need to find criteria for “intelligent public discussion” (4), and he
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 15

expresses hope that, “as Schenker’s work becomes more widely recognized,
serious music theorists will make further applications of his ideas” (23).
These passages evoke music theorists as people who reflect and converse. But
in many other passages, a reified music theory floats free from any particu-
lar social embodiment. Forte writes of “certain problems which stand before
music theory today” (4); he identifies “five unsolved problems in music theory”
(24); he suggests that “music theory is responsible for developing new con-
cepts and new analytical procedures” for contemporary music (33). (Here
and in subsequent quotations throughout, I add italics to draw attention to
wording.) Music theory itself. Is anybody home?
Yes: at several points Forte invokes an abstract, generalized figure, “the
music theorist,” whose behavior contributes to this field. “From the view-
point of the present-day music theorist,” he suggests, Schenker’s achievement
“may be likened to a particular kind of high-level achievement in science”
(7). Extant writings on rhythm, he claims, “have little significance to the the-
orist whose proper concern is with the structural role of what we ordinarily
designate as ‘rhythmic’” (24). His concluding paragraph states that “in many
respects Schenker’s work provides us with a model of what the work of the
music theorist should be” (34). This last sentence lays some of Forte’s cards on
the table: the essay is not merely about some interesting ideas of an intrigu-
ing historical figure, Heinrich Schenker; rather, it is meant to articulate a
particular model of a normative subjectivity, a way to be a musician. By fol-
lowing the model, you can discipline and transform your existing self to
become a specimen of “the music theorist.”
Of course, as I already suggested, Forte’s own writing contributes to the
model. While admiring and emulating the repetitiously named Schenker, a
reader should also want to emulate the agent or self constructed in Forte’s
essay, the subject of its many first-person pronouns. Given the common con-
ception of professional music theory as impersonal and science-like, you
might not expect to see so much self-reference, so many first-person pro-
nouns, but there they are. Surely this personal self-referring subject offers an
exemplary instance of “the music theorist,” the agent of music theory.
So who is this music theorist—who, in Forte’s essay, says “I”?
The music theorist of Forte’s essay is conspicuously a writer, concerned to
dispose the words of the essay in the allotted time or space. Sometimes the
presence of these words, these items that the writer disposes, becomes reflex-
ively explicit. Introducing an account of Schenker’s musical activities outside
music theory, Forte writes that “I should like to devote a few words to a
description of them” (7). In suggesting possible applications of Schenker’s
views, he writes that “I should like to devote the following paragraphs to a dis-
cussion of five unsolved problems in music theory” (23–24). From the words
on the page, you construct a voice or a subjectivity, and then you find that this
subjectivity is addressing you about the acts of arranging those very words.
16 fred everett maus

More broadly, temporal references conjoined to the first person pronoun

are common in this text, and they almost all refer to the “time” (or “space”)
within the essay, the ordering and pacing of the essay’s materials. For instance:
“Before describing the content of Schenker’s work in greater detail, I should
like to survey his achievement in general terms” (7). “I shall first make a quick
survey of this analytic sketch and then give a more detailed explanation” (10).
“Schenker invented a special vocabulary and devised a unique representa-
tional means. I will explain these further on” (7). “I shall attempt to answer this
question as concisely as possible” (5). “I wish to emphasize at this point that . . .”
(7). “Further on I shall provide a commentary . . .” (9). “First, however, I should
like to complete this brief survey . . .” (9). “I shall first make a quick survey . . .”
(10). “criteria which I shall explain further on” (10). “As I have already mentioned,
he shows . . .” (15). “However, because of space limitations I shall not under-
take a summary here . . .” (17). “I turn now to the development of Schenker’s
theory . . .” (18). Such marks of organizational control are common in aca-
demic writing, but their density in Forte’s essay is impressive. They exhibit the
writer, but almost as though the subjectivity of the writer exists only within the
confines of the essay: as though the writer is a special creature existing purely
to arrange and display the materials of this text.
There is a moment of pathos near the beginning of the essay, where, for
once, the theorist of the essay imagines a time outside the span of the essay,
and an encounter with a diverse world in which incomprehension is likely:
“I hope that this review of [Schenker’s] work, by providing accurate infor-
mation to those who are unfamiliar with it, will serve to place future discus-
sions on a somewhat more rational basis than they have been in the past. Yet,
even as I write these words, I prepare myself to be misunderstood—such is the
price of disputation long conducted in an atmosphere of general misunder-
standing” (4). It’s a delicate, sad passage, and strangely concrete: you see
before your eyes the very words that this writer, in an uncharacteristically
tremulous moment, braces himself to send to an uncertain fate. (Does this
make you feel protective, as though you, for one, should try to appreciate
these endangered words? Or perhaps it makes you a little anxious, as though
you are about to have your intelligence tested?) This isolated moment, asso-
ciating the future fate of the essay with the writer’s vulnerability to misun-
derstanding, creates, by contrast, a sense that the continuous, enclosed tem-
porality of most of the essay offers a kind of shelter.

Indeed, within much of the essay, as you read the confident account of
Schenker’s thought and of the structure of a song (“Aus meinen Thränen
spriessen,” from the Schumann/Heine Dichterliebe), misunderstanding does
not seem to be a live possibility. The sense of rapport among Forte,
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 17

Schenker, and the music results partly from an extraordinary feature of the
essay, the same feature I pointed out in my opening comments: repeatedly,
details of language create patterns in which the behavior of Schumann’s
music, as depicted by Schenker, and the behavior of Forte’s essay mirror one
another within the space of a sentence or two. The relationship seems unde-
niable, but bizarre—not just the broad relation of mimicry, but the place-
ment of musical and textual mirror-images in such close proximity. Here are
more examples:
(1) Forte expands a point: “In amplification of this, example 1.9 shows how
the inner-voice component A is stated at the beginning of the song, pro-
longed by the lower adjacent 7 tone, G-sharp, in the middle section, then in
m. 12 begins the descent to C-sharp.” And in the next sentence, Forte con-
tinues: “In Schenker’s terms, this linear progression is the composing-out of an
interval” (28). The theorist amplifies a point, the piece composes out an
(2) Commenting on Schenker’s sketch, Forte writes that “the adjacent-
tone D recurs in m. 14, where Schenker assigns more structural weight to it,
as indicated by the stem. I reiterate that conventional durational values are
used in the analytic sketches to indicate the relative position of a given com-
ponent or configuration in the tonal hierarchy” (14). A tone in Schumann’s
piece recurs, and the theorist reiterates.
(3) Forte discusses the Schumann song’s use of a particular secondary
dominant. He indicates parenthetically that this point does not continue his
explication of Schenker’s analysis: “(To avoid misunderstanding, I point out
that this discussion is not directly related to Schenker’s sketch.)” After break-
ing continuity to offer this special explanation, he writes that “the A7 chord
seems abrupt, has the effect of a discontinuous element, and therefore
requires special explanation” (27).
(4) Writing about the notion of interruption, Forte comments that “the
idea of the interrupted fundamental line provides the basis for Schenker’s
concept of form.” After a few sentences of explanation, Forte continues:
“Before explaining the middleground, I should like to direct attention again
to the diminution which spans the third below C-sharp” (13). Like a com-
position, the theorist proceeds by interrupting his structure, delaying the
Indeed, such interruptions or delays, basic to Schenker’s conception of
musical time, occasion many of Forte’s first-person pronouns: “I shall return
to this often neglected facet of Schenker’s work later” (7); “further on I shall
provide a commentary upon an analytic sketch” (9); “I shall explain the black
noteheads shortly”(12); “I shall return to this further on when I consider the
general problem of constructing a theory of rhythm for tonal music” (15).
(5) Forte completes his account of the Schumann sketch by showing the
form of the complete song: “One final aspect of the foreground sketch
18 fred everett maus

deserves mention: the form” (17). Closure and completeness in song, sketch,
and Forte’s commentary align.
(6) At several points Schenker is also drawn into this pattern of matching.
Forte identifies a passing chord, and writes: “it belongs only to the fore-
ground and therefore is to be distinguished from the initial tonic chord, a
background element. Two of Schenker’s most important convictions underlie
this treatment of detail” (15). Convictions underlie a particular analytical
treatment, as background elements underlie a foreground chord.
(7) Writing of Schenker’s motivic thought, Forte notes that “throughout
his writings he demonstrates again and again that tonal compositions abound
in hidden repetitions of this kind” (14). Schenker repeatedly identifies musi-
cal repetitions.
(8) A more complex transfer of qualities, brought about by a conjunction
of temporal references involving Schenker, the composition, and the writer
of Forte’s essay, appears in the following sentences: “Here we have an
example of the careful distinction which Schenker always draws between
major bass components, or Stufen, which belong to the background level,
and more transient, contrapuntal-melodic events at the foreground and mid-
dleground levels. A brief consideration of three additional events will com-
plete our examination of the middleground level” (14). “Always,” “tran-
sient,” “brief”: the distinction between endurance and transience appears in
dazzling succession for Schenker’s thought, musical structure, and Forte’s

How strange that Forte’s essay, beyond making assertions about musical
structure, should also mimic procedures of Schenkerian musical structure.
I doubt that Forte consciously formulated such a project, or that his readers
have typically perceived the pattern consciously. Nonetheless it adds to the
sense of authority in the essay: music theory seems to find something like a
musical voice. Or perhaps the essay, and the theory it promotes, gives music
the prosaic, reasonable, well-organized voice of an academic essay, placing
music within comfortable reach of Forte’s writing and concepts.1

Beyond the specific moments where Forte’s language creates parallels
between music and theoretical discourse, there is a more general resem-
blance between the theorist and the composition in the essay. At the begin-
ning of the explication of Schenker’s analysis of Schumann’s song, Forte
identifies the foreground, middleground, and background levels of the
sketch, and meanwhile employs the terms “subordination” and “control.”
Indicating the middleground level, he states that “it should be evident now
that the analytic procedure is one of reduction; details which are subordinate
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 19

with respect to larger patterns are gradually eliminated.” And he continues:

“Finally, on the upper staff, [Schenker] has represented the fundamental
structural level, or background, which controls the entire work” (10). These
terms imply an anthropomorphic construal of the composition as organized
by a kind of behavior: certain actions, acts of subordinating and controlling,
give shape and order to the musical events.
This construal continues in details of his analysis, with particular empha-
sis on the notion of control: he refers to “the triadic third which controls the
upper-voice motion of the entire song” (28); he identifies the “prolonga-
tional motion from 3 to 2” as “the controlling melodic pattern of the first
phrase” (13); he explains that Schenker, “by slurring E to. . . . indicates that
he considers that motion to be the controlling bass motion” (14). In one pas-
sage, “the lowest voice . . . is subordinate to the voice which lies immediately
above it” (17). A slur connecting two tonic chords “indicates that the IV and
V chords lie within the control of that chord” (16).
Forte’s drama of control and subordination features one preeminent
structure, “the background, which controls the entire work,” along with sub-
ordinate structures which, in turn, exert more local forms of control. In
Schenkerian reduction, “detail is gradually eliminated . . . so that the under-
lying, controlling structure is revealed” (18).
It would be accurate to summarize the theorist’s activity in this essay,
dramatized by the first-person pronouns, as the controlling of verbal mate-
rial. As agents who control material, arranging it within a particular time or
space, repeating, delaying, returning, interrupting, the theorist and the
agency of the music are well suited to achieve understanding. Such a theo-
rist can identify with such music. And you, too, could learn the discipline of
writing about music in this controlled, mirror-like way.
The more specific, localized instances of mimicry that I pointed out ear-
lier are moments when the broad similarity of theorist and musical agency
creates little bubbles on the surface of the prose. Of course, the point of
Forte’s essay is not that others should imitate this particular play of first-per-
son pronouns and momentary mirroring. But these features display a subject
position that you can also occupy less explicitly. I suggest that a similar pat-
tern of matching is present whenever someone writes in a controlled,
rational, masterful way, and depicts music as the product of a controlled,
rational, masterful agency. Perhaps the desire to write a lucid, coherent
account of the lucid coherence of a composition typically derives from the
hope of structuring one’s writing as a meeting of like minds, from a kind of
identification between theoretical and musical agency. In such writing, the
music theorist and the music share the strengths and limitations of a rational,
controlling mind, and it is no wonder they get along so well. The theorist and
the music are made for each other. Tidy, isn’t it?
But there is more: another, different resemblance between song and essay.
20 fred everett maus

Forte’s essay describes the patterning of musical sound in time, and mirrors
it with a patterning of words in the essay. Forte offers the essay to his read-
ers, and permits himself an isolated moment of pathos near the beginning,
when Forte steels himself for anticipated incomprehension. Now let’s turn
to Heinrich Heine’s text for Schumann’s song. You will not learn from Forte’s
essay that the famous poet has anything to do with this music—the word
“Heine” is absent (the word “Schumann” barely appears).2 Nonetheless
Heine’s text is apposite:
From my tears spring up
many blooming flowers,
and my sighs become
a chorus of nightingales.
And if you love me, child,
I give you all the flowers,
and before your window shall sound
the song of the nightingale.3

Heine writes of metaphorical transformations, just as Forte maintains a pat-

tern of matching between musical and linguistic phenomena. The persona
in the poem and the writer in the essay offer the products of their transfor-
mation to an audience, an addressee of these texts. And both are uncertain
about the response of the audience. Here is a diagram to show the shared

Heine Forte

Starting point tears, sighs Schenker’s graph,

Schumann’s notes

transformed into/symbolized by

Result flowers, birds Forte’s words

Addressee beloved readers (theorists)
Uncertainty Will you love me? Will you understand me?

Obviously this relationship between song and essay is different in its effect
from the mirroring that I described before. I suggested that the mirroring
creates matched images of music and theorist and, however subliminally,
enhances the authority of the theorist. But Forte’s structural rhyme with
Heine’s text occurs in an essay that omits any mention of the poem. It is as
though, rather than showing the parallel, Forte prefers to substitute his own
new text to go with the music of the song, concocting a loose translation of
the original.
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 21

But after all, what advantage would Forte’s stance derive from attention
to the words of the song? As Forte depicts it (drawing upon Schenker), Schu-
mann’s song is a display of structural mastery, a disciplined deployment of
repetition, delay, interruption, and so on, all subordinated to the back-
ground that controls everything. In contrast, Heine’s character is mostly out
of control, in the grip of strong emotions, the symptoms of which turn
miraculously into beautiful natural objects, useful perhaps as gifts; and this
lover is dependent, asking for reciprocity, hoping for the mutuality of shared
love. The hope for love brings a need for response from the interlocutor,
whereas Forte, in his essay, seems secure in his knowledge of Schenker: he
doesn’t need the readers, though he hopes to benefit them by sharing his
It is intriguing to find, a generation later, another Schenkerian analyst,
Arthur Komar, directly expressing his disdain for Heine’s protagonist: “The
words [of Dichterliebe] actually impede my enjoyment of the whole cycle—
to the extent that I heed them. The moping, distraught lover portrayed in
German song cycles bores me, but this feeling in no way detracts from my
enthusiasm for the music of the great song cycles of Beethoven, Schubert,
and Schumann” (Komar 1971, 11, note 20). As this implies, Komar’s
extended essay analyzes the music of Dichterliebe while disregarding the
words. Asking in what way the whole cycle is “an integrated musical whole”
(63), he replies by identifying a “tonal plan” and “modal plan” established
in the first five songs; taken together, these plans “essentially control the
remaining course of the cycle” (78). Once that mopey lover is out of the pic-
ture, Komar can display the control that gives wholeness to the cycle and
purpose to his own analytical writing. I suppose Forte’s evasion of Heine’s
poem has a similar point.5
Heine’s lover addresses the second half of the poem to the beloved, end-
ing in suspense as the lover awaits a reply. Forte’s essay uses the second per-
son pronoun twice, with uniform rhetoric: Forte anticipates a question,
which he promptly answers. “But, you ask, what about the books and
articles . . .” (5). “You may ask how one accounts for a motion of this
kind . . .” (22). Forte ventriloquizes the reader, creating a dependent inter-
locutor who elicits his own authoritative responses. Rather than “I need your
love,” we read that “I know what you need to know just now, and here it is.”
In these approaches—of Heine’s lover to the beloved, of Forte to his read-
ers—the trajectories of need and potential satisfaction are opposite. Heine’s
lover supplicates the beloved, who might return his love; the projected
reader supplicates Forte, who offers satisfaction promptly.
The song text is about erotic desire and the transformation of feeling into
symbols. Psychoanalysis specializes in such topics. It is interesting, given the
omission of such a text, that Forte’s essay mentions psychoanalysis promi-
nently. While Forte does not say that music theory is a science, he seems to
22 fred everett maus

think it benefits from an increasingly scientific attitude, or an attitude influ-

enced by science. To illustrate the point (which remains rather vague), he
compares Schenkerian theory to psychoanalysis: they represent the same
kind of achievement. How can Forte praise psychoanalysis, identifying it as
an exemplary science and associating it with his own favored style of music
theory, while showing no interest in the erotic concerns and symbolic sub-
stitutions of Heine’s text?
But in fact, Forte’s way of evoking psychoanalysis is precisely (if quietly)
a refusal of psychoanalysis as a critical tool for understanding music. In
likening psychoanalysis and Schenkerian theory, Forte indicates that psy-
choanalysis is “a particular kind of high-level achievement in science” (7),
and that music theory is a parallel achievement for music. Psychoanalysis is
a successful scientific approach to the human mind, and Schenkerian the-
ory has a similar success with music. Built into the comparison is a distinc-
tion between the mind and music as separate objects of study, each with its
own theory (even while the comparison implies, attractively if indetermi-
nately, that studying a composition might resemble, somehow, the study of
a person).
Forte uses a specific and limited conception of psychoanalysis, pertinent
to the comparison he offers. “Freud opened the way for a deeper under-
standing of the human personality with his discovery that the diverse pat-
terns of overt behavior are controlled by certain underlying factors” (7), and this
is similar to Schenker’s achievement. As you can see, Forte’s analogy is pre-
cise, because Schenkerian theory, on Forte’s account, also identifies the
“underlying factors” that “control” other events. Like Schenker, Freud shows
how to master the diversity of “overt” or “surface” phenomena by identifying
the underlying, controlling factors. In a mind or a composition, certain fac-
tors are in control, and by recognizing and understanding those factors, the
psychoanalyst or music theorist attains cognitive control.
What about psychoanalysis as therapy? as a style of conversation between
therapist and patient, shaped by conscious and unconscious processes on
both sides? as a tool for altering sensibility and experience? What about its
depiction of the mind, not simply as an orderly configuration of control and
subordination, but as a site of conflicting desires, many of them sexual, many
of them unsatisfied? These are aspects of psychoanalysis that do not help
Forte’s analogy, issues that do not resonate with his conception of music the-
ory, and they go unmentioned.6
The essay conjoins identification between Forte and the music with
silence about the poetic text—and therefore, of course, silence about any
relation between Forte and the poetic text. Someone influenced by psycho-
analysis might wonder whether Forte’s omission of the text is disavowal, that
is, refusal of a recognition or identification that would be threatening in
some way. But what would Forte disavow, and why?
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 23

identification and domination

The features I have noted in Forte’s essay are not easy to interpret on the
basis of that essay alone. It will be helpful, now, to turn to a more explicit
account of the issues of control and identification that have emerged, inex-
plicit and untheorized, from Forte’s writing. Edward T. Cone’s book The
Composer’s Voice (1974) offers such an account. The use of Cone to interpret
Forte might be surprising: many musicologists regard Cone’s writing as an
important alternative to technical theory like Forte’s, articulating a con-
trasting perspective. The Composer’s Voice, some of Cone’s least technical work,
is about the imaginary personae and agents with which composers, per-
formers, and listeners populate musical compositions, and that emphasis
might seem quite different from a technical Schenkerian concern with
pitch hierarchy. Nonetheless, there are shared concerns between Cone’s
book and Forte’s essay. Cone shares some basic assumptions with Forte, but
develops the ideas in a different direction. The difference between the two
writers will be useful in interpreting Forte: specifically, it will be useful to ask
why Forte might wish to avoid certain ideas that appear in Cone’s writing.
Cone’s book insists at many points that the multiple personae or agents
of a composition should be understood in terms of a single encompassing
persona, and here he theorizes about issues that recall Forte’s essay. Accord-
ing to Cone, a single persona (named in various ways, as “the complete musi-
cal persona,” “the composer’s persona,” or “the composer’s voice”) controls
everything in the composition: “It is to be posited as an intelligence embrac-
ing and controlling all the elements of musical thought that comprise a work”
(1974, 109). The notion of a single controlling presence recalls, of course,
Forte’s account of the “background, which controls the entire work.” Though
a piece of instrumental music may create a sense of many interacting agents,
embodied by the instrumental parts, Cone affirms that “in the last analysis
all roles are aspects of one controlling persona, which in turn is the projection
of one creative human consciousness—that of the composer” (114). Simi-
larly, in vocal music “the composer’s persona governs words as well as music”
(18). The unity of opera, too, “forces us to look for a wider intelligence at
work and hence to assume the constant presence of a single musical persona.” No
real opera could be “free from this persona’s hegemony” (14).
Unlike Forte, Cone sidesteps issues of technical analysis, and instead offers
an account of listening, along with related accounts of composition and per-
formance. Appropriate listening, according to Cone, seeks identification
with the controlling persona. “The goal of participation [as a listener] must
be identification with the complete musical persona by making its utterance one’s
own” (122). “To listen to music . . . is to make the composer’s voice our own”
(157). These formulations are not immediately clear: what do you do, while
listening silently, to make the persona’s utterance, or the composer’s voice,
24 fred everett maus

your own? But, despite obscurity, to make the persona’s utterance your own
must be, somehow, to feel the persona’s power and control as your own, and
this idea has, one might feel, a general affinity with Forte’s procedure of mir-
roring between the controlling musical forces and his own linguistic control.
Cone’s account is complex. Alongside descriptions of identification, other
passages emphasize the domination of listeners by music. I already indicated
a flow of power within the music, depicted in both Cone’s and Forte’s
accounts: some powerful force, the background or the persona, controls all
the subordinate events of the composition. To this, Cone adds that the music
exerts control over the listener.7
Elaborating the psychology of listeners’ experiences, Cone cites the fact
that many people have imaginary musical sound in their minds much of the
time, involuntarily, and he defines composing and listening in relation to
this musical stream of consciousness. “To compose is to control this inner
voice, to shape it into new forms, to make it speak for us. To listen to music
is to yield our inner voice to the composer’s domination” (157). You might
have an ongoing stream of musical thoughts, in which case you can simply
let it continue. As a composer, you might take your existing stream of musi-
cal thoughts and exert conscious control over it: composers make a distinc-
tive use of control in their own mental lives. As a listener, you can yield the
stream to the influence of something outside, letting the composer’s control
(or, as Cone might put it at his most precise, the persona’s control) extend
to your own mental life.8
I want to reflect a bit on this interesting idea of an inner musical voice,
offering a more differentiated description than Cone provides. The inner
activity can vary widely, ranging from aimless sonic doodling, to full-fledged
inner performance of familiar music, to vivid inner improvisation; it can
fluctuate from periphery to focus of one’s awareness; it can be uncontrolled
and spontaneous, or one can shape it in various respects. And, beyond Cone’s
alternatives of the composer’s and listener’s roles, the inner stream can flow
out into performance, solo improvisation, or musical interaction, and can
also emerge in such half-externalized forms as humming, rhythmic fidget-
ing, finger-tapping, and so on. For me and, I assume, for many people, this
ongoing musical stream, and the various fluctuations in its character, are
important aspects of what it is to be conscious! Cone’s descriptions of the
composer, who forcefully directs this inner stream with the goal of produc-
ing a score, and the listener, who completely relinquishes control and allows
someone else’s music to take over, are extremes in a complex range of pos-
sibilities. Perhaps Cone’s selective account reveals that, despite the calm, affa-
ble surface of his writing, he is drawn in some way to these extremes of con-
trol and domination. Or, at least, he has not developed the account beyond
what he needs to give his description of the classical concert setting.
Cone’s conception, in which we experience music by encountering pow-
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 25

erful forces that control everything in the piece, and that also control our
own inner musical voice, has a complex relationship to his other idea about
identification. The listener is dominated by, and also identifies with, the per-
sona, seeming to maintain relations of subordination and identification
simultaneously. Listeners are, on Cone’s account, at once subjected to con-
trol that comes from outside, and empowered by taking on that control as
though it were their own. Here is Cone’s way of putting it, in sentences that
conclude the main argument of the book: “To listen to music is to yield our
inner voice to the composer’s domination. Or better: it is to make the com-
poser’s voice our own” (157). These sentences conjoin the two aspects of dom-
ination and identification, without clarifying their relationship.9
This account of listening reminds me of a useful general concept formu-
lated by the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas. Bollas (1987) writes of a phe-
nomenon that he calls “extractive introjection”: sometimes two people inter-
act so that some mental content or process, originally belonging to one
person, seems to be taken away from that person, subsequently belonging
only to the other one. Bollas illustrates the concept through a series of anec-
dotes. For instance, he describes a four-year-old, B, at play, “engaged in a pri-
vate drama that is nonetheless realized through actual objects. The space is
entered by A, who creates such distraction that B loses his playfulness.” A
might be a parent, who “appropriates the playing by telling the child what
the play is about and then prematurely engages in playfulness.” With repeti-
tion of such interruptions, the child’s “sense of spontaneity would diminish”
and B “will come to experience an extraction of that element of himself: his
capacity to play” (1987, 159). Something that was in the child, an ongoing
activity, is now gone, replaced by something outside; the playfulness has
been extracted from the child and introjected into the adult. Bollas describes
a number of similar interactions, many of them between adults. He goes on
to suggest that “a child who is the victim of consistent extractive introjection
may choose to identify with the aggressive parent and install in his person-
ality this identification, which then functions as a false self” (164). That is,
the response to a theft of part of oneself might be, not exactly a recovery of
what was taken, but an imagined identification with the other person and the
act of theft.
Similarly, in Cone’s account of listening, many people usually have music
passing through their minds; but when you listen attentively, you experience
a displacement or extraction of the source of musical thought, from your
own stream of inner music to the activities of external sound sources. In per-
formance settings that strictly limit sonic participation, such as modern clas-
sical concerts, the musical source is entirely outside the listener. However, as
Cone describes it, this “extraction” leads immediately to an act of identifi-
cation, in which the listener somehow identifies herself with the external
source of musical activity.
26 fred everett maus

The vocabulary of “theft” and “aggression” may seem melodramatic for

ordinary musical listening. Reading Bollas’s story about the four-year-old,
it is easy to regard the child’s play as valuable, and the adult’s “extraction”
as intrusive. But we are not used to thinking much about the ongoing inner
musical lives of most people, and may not have much sense of how to value
them: Cone’s treatment is helpful in drawing attention to this pervasive
music activity. Disruption of a listener’s inner voice may or may not strike
you as intrusive. Perhaps the slight sense of strain in moving from Bollas’s
concept to the musical case reflects a useful stretching of concepts. Maybe
the process of “extraction” that Bollas describes is not as determinate in its
value as his uniformly negative examples suggest; maybe, on the other hand,
an alignment of his examples with Cone’s account of listening hints at
unnerving evaluative possibilities for routine aspects of contemporary musi-
cal life.
At any rate, we have reached a tantalizing congruence and gap between
Cone’s and Forte’s writings. The two men agree that a single controlling
force governs each composition, and that recognition of this force is central
to musical understanding. And both texts suggest some kind of emulation as
a proper way of relating to that force. But Cone’s account of listening gives
a central role to musical domination of the listener, for which there is no
clear counterpart in Forte’s essay. And, while an element of emulation is
present in both writers, the specific forms of mimicry—identification while
listening, mirror-like control of a written text—are different.

listening, score-reading, and “fantasy recomposition”

At this point, a certain speculation becomes attractive. Perhaps Cone gives a
prominent role to domination because he writes about the experience of lis-
tening, which has obvious aspects of receptivity or passivity in relation to
musical sound. And perhaps Forte, in contrast, can sidestep issues about lis-
tening, because he writes about professional analysis.
But can Forte really sidestep issues about listening? Listening is relevant
to analysis, isn’t it?
Actually, the typical practices of analysis can raise questions about the role
of listening. As students of musical analysis know well, academic courses in
analysis usually proceed with every participant looking at a musical score;
discussions that derive exclusively from listening, without ongoing reference
to scores, are rare, and often the listening takes place outside the classroom
altogether, as private class preparation. Similarly, the activity of making an
analysis normally involves continuous consultation of a score; much aca-
demic analysis is created in a silent room, by an analyst who stares thought-
fully at pages of musical notation.
I’ve sometimes encountered a rather simple objection to the primacy of
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 27

scores in theory and analysis, on the grounds that they distract from, or
replace, musical sound—as though analysts are, in some way, thinking about
scores rather than musical sound. Such a blunt criticism seems ill founded or,
at best, undeveloped. The idea that score-readers replace sound with sight
is too simple. Experienced score-readers do not just look at visual symbols;
we use them as a starting point for remembering or imagining sound. The
Composer’s Voice gives a more helpful point of departure for thinking about
score-reading, by considering scores in light of power relations and subject
A score contains the composer’s instructions. Therefore, Cone suggests
that it can serve as a symbol of the all-powerful persona, and this can give
value to its visible presence in live performance settings. “The physical pres-
ence of the score (or of its parts) is a constant reminder—for both per-
formers and audience—of the control of the complete musical persona” (64).
And Cone describes score-reading in terms of identification: “Score-reading
. . . permits a musician (the reader) to identify himself fully and intimately with
the complete persona, and . . . gives him total control over the direction of the
persona’s musical activity” (136). Score-reading, it seems, is the best way to
feel like the persona. It even, somehow, gives you control over the persona’s
activity! How can this be?
As Cone explains, score-reading is “a kind of abstract performance”
(136); a performer has the task of bringing musical events into being, and a
score-reader does this too, at least in imagination. Performance and score-
reading occupy complex positions, neither fully creative nor fully receptive.
The performer or score-reader must respect the composer’s instructions but,
by so doing, can assume responsibility for the creation of musical events, in
actual or imagined sound.
In fact, the score opens a wider range of subject-positions for a score-
reader than Cone indicates. (Again, as in his account of “our inner voice,”
Cone seems drawn to a somewhat simplified account.) You can use the score
to imagine hearing a performance, in a kind of imaginative listening. Or you
can imagine yourself following the composer’s notated instructions in a per-
formance, taking the role of an imaginary performer. Or you can imagine
choosing the symbols that constitute the score, as though making the deci-
sions that compose the music. Or, less literally, you might imagine creating
all the musical gestures of the piece from your own musical initiative, like a
composer, but in the ordering and time of a performance; this is probably
closest to Cone’s conception of identifying with the persona. And of course
your imagination might do things that remain a little vague about these dis-
tinctions. The most powerful positions, identifying with the composer or his
imaginary reconfiguration as the persona, are readily available to a score-
reader, probably more available than to a listener. But also, even if you imag-
ine yourself in the least powerful role, as a listener, your own imagination has
28 fred everett maus

to conjure up the musical sounds that you imagine yourself hearing. Imag-
ining oneself listening is different, in that way, from just listening. In general,
it seems that an emphasis on score-reading is likely to diminish the subordi-
nation that listening may bring. So, to the extent that analysis is based on
score-reading rather than listening, it may be able to evade issues about the
dependency or receptiveness of listening.
But, whatever you think about the general tendencies of analytical prac-
tice, it would be too simple to say that Forte’s essay emphasizes score-read-
ing and ignores listening. The truth is stranger and more complex: Forte
places very strong emphasis on listening experience, but does so at just five
scattered points, with no perceptible effect on the rest of the essay. There is
a pattern: each reference to listening occurs within a single sentence, after
which he drops the topic immediately.
Forte cites Schenker’s belief that a performer could play well only “if
he had developed an aural sensitivity to the hierarchy of tonal values
which [the score] expressed” (8). Forte also mentions Furtwängler’s em-
phasis on Schenker’s discovery of “Fernhören (literally, ‘distance-hearing’)”
(19), and he explains Brahms’s curiosity about parallel fifths and octaves
by the “contradiction” between pre-Schenkerian theory and Brahms’s
“own highly-refined sense of hearing, which encompassed large spans”
(30). Apart from their paradoxical combination of emphasis, brevity, and
lack of consequences, these remarks about listening share other traits.
They are all about someone else’s hearing, not Forte’s. And they concern
the listening experiences of good performers, or of those imposing
authorities Furtwängler and Brahms, not the experiences of mere listen-
ers as such.
Forte’s most important reference to listening comes in a general discus-
sion of methodology. He asserts that Schenker’s theory derives from “the
organization of the music itself,” and explains: “Schenker consistently derived
his theoretical formulations from aural experiences with actual musical com-
positions, and verified them at the same source” (7). Evidently, for Forte, the
appropriateness of Schenker’s theoretical work depends on the founda-
tional role of those listening experiences. Schenker’s valuable contributions
rest on his listening. Can we discuss and ponder his listening experiences?
No: they are not otherwise acknowledged in Forte’s essay, and consequently
they occupy a curious position as something crucial that, nonetheless, one
barely mentions. In the essay, Schenker’s experiences as a listener are both
the source of his musical wisdom and, it seems, something private.
Schenker’s secret life.
In one more passage, Forte suggests that Schenker teaches a particular
kind of hearing. Someone who encounters Schenker’s thought must learn
many new things—“a new terminology, a new set of visual symbols, and, most
important, a new way of hearing music” (6). As you might expect from the other
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 29

examples, this assertion of the importance of listening is laconic, tight-

The whole essay reveals nothing about Forte’s personal listening experi-
ences, except insofar as he is included within the generalization that
Schenker teaches a “way of hearing.” For all the proliferation of first-person
pronouns, and the terse assertions of the centrality of listening, the essay
never depicts Forte as a listener.
How does Forte propose to teach Schenkerian thought, if not through a
direct exploration of listening experiences? He approaches Schenker
through an activity that closely resembles shared score-reading: the reading
of an analytical sketch. Not only does the contemplation of analytical
sketches resemble score-reading, it also includes, almost always, a reading of
the actual score along with the sketches; studying the sketches shapes a par-
ticular relation to that score.
Following the typical practice of Schenker’s analytical essays, Forte begins
with the background level and moves to the foreground. That is, he begins
by allowing his readers to understand the “underlying, controlling struc-
ture.” In the process of moving from the background toward the foreground,
you move from something generalized toward the familiar “surface” of the
actual piece.10
Such analyses do not claim to reproduce the sequence of thoughts of the
actual composer, but the analogy with composition is hard to miss. Forte’s
essay brings out the analogy obliquely: he writes that “reduction is approxi-
mately the reverse of variation . . . Reduction accomplishes the reverse; detail
is gradually eliminated” (18). If reduction, which yields the set of sketches,
is like the reverse of variation, then the musical process one follows in read-
ing the sketches from background to foreground must resemble variation.
William Benjamin, two decades later, makes a related point about the
process of writing Schenkerian graphic analyses.11 He emphasizes “the
demand [Schenkerian analysis] places on its users of total creative involvement
with pieces of music” (Benjamin 1981, 159). To create a middleground
graph, according to Benjamin, is to compose a piece: he offers this claim as
literal truth. The middleground is at once a commentary on an existing com-
position and, itself, a new composition, a “work of art or, more specifically,
. . . anti-variation” (160).12
My point is different from Benjamin’s but they can work together to con-
firm a general “compositional” quality in Schenkerian analysis. Benjamin
distinguishes between the familiar interpretive or explanatory aspect of
analysis and the less-remarked creative aspect, the analyst’s artistic composi-
tion of middlegrounds. To this, I add that the interpretive aspect also has a
compositional quality, though now in an imaginative rather than literal
sense: the process of reading a series of graphs feels like composing, as one
shares the step-by-step work process of an imaginary composer. The score,
30 fred everett maus

which by itself does not determine a reader’s subject-position as imaginary

creator, performer, or listener, now becomes a prop in a game of make-
believe: you imagine, of the score, that it is the goal and result of the quasi-
compositional thought-process that you follow.13 Joseph Dubiel summarizes
this elegantly in referring to Schenker’s “fantasy recompositions of the ‘mas-
terworks’ ” (Dubiel 1990, 327).14
The idea that you can understand music by taking on the perspective of a
fictionalized creator brings Schenkerian thought, and Forte’s essay, especially
close to the ideas of The Composer’s Voice —close enough that one can refer to
the “persona” of a Schenkerian analysis, the imaginary intelligence who cre-
ates the music through a kind of variation technique. A Schenker essay, then,
might be understood as a novella that narrates the activity of this persona.15
Nonetheless, for Cone the persona and identification with it are impor-
tant aspects of listening experience, while in Forte’s essay, and Schenkerian
practice generally, the analytical understanding that brings you close to the
persona is, in a certain way, incompatible with listening. Schenker’s “fantasy
recompositions” present two kinds of musical time, the familiar exoteric
time of the music in performance, moving from beginning to end, and the
esoteric time of the music as it develops from the background structure by
variation, gradually becoming more complex. When you identify most
closely with the Schenkerian persona, following its thoughtful decisions step
by step, you must occupy the esoteric time of imaginary composition, and
this necessarily takes you out of a listener’s swifter, less meditative temporal-
ity. The two kinds of time dramatize the distinction between a listener’s per-
spective and that of the creative persona. The two perspectives eclipse each
A broad pattern begins to emerge. Forte’s essay identifies with the per-
sona: it both mimics the creative activity of a musical persona through its
depiction of an active, controlling author and also, more directly, encour-
ages the theorist and reader to share an imagined process through which a
persona creates a song. On the other hand, his essay avoids any detailed
account of listening, despite a few assertions that give listening a kind of
abstract importance, and I want to link this to Forte’s decision to analyze a
song and neglect the text of the song, with its supplicating lover who awaits
a response. Perhaps musical listening and Heine’s erotic need share qualities
of sensuality and dependence.
It seems ever more plausible that the essay’s emphasis on control and cre-
ative activity is a way of disavowing dependence, receptivity, sensuality, or
passivity—disavowing what Cone calls the “domination” of listeners by
music. If Forte’s essay downplays certain aspects of musical experience, you
can’t expect it to give a helpful account of those experiential possibilities. For
further insight into the dynamic of identification and domination, I’ll return
once more to Cone’s book.
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 31

In using Cone’s writing to interpret Forte’s, I have treated Cone as, in cer-
tain ways, the more explicit of the two writers. I have looked to his text for
relatively direct statements of ideas that can then be read back into Forte’s
essay. In particular, while Forte does not do much to describe listeners, I
have suggested that Cone’s account provides an account of listening that
works well with Forte’s account of control and subordination.
Now, though, I want to change tactics and start teasing out some less
explicit aspects of Cone’s position. In particular, I want to identify an implicit
eroticization of musical experience in The Composer’s Voice. Just as I have used
Cone’s views to fill in gaps in Forte’s account, now I want to interpret Cone’s
1974 book by drawing on a more recent musicological tradition, from about
1990 on, that directly explores relations between musical experience and
sexuality.17 In The Composer’s Voice, an eroticization of musical experience
sometimes comes close to the surface, but Cone’s habitual discretion nor-
mally keeps sexual issues in the realm of implication and connotation.
Recently, Philip Brett has drawn attention to passages in The Composer’s
Voice about four-hand piano performance, passages that evoke, not quite
directly, the eroticism (and, in male–male performance, homoeroticism) of
that ensemble. Brett (1997, 154) observes how close Cone’s writing comes
to raciness, and asserts that “This is surely as close as musicology of a per-
fectly respectable kind can come to exploring the (deviant) sexuality sur-
rounding music without advertising what it is doing.” A few years after The
Composer’s Voice, Cone published “Schubert’s Promissory Note” (1982), his
most direct treatment of music and sexuality, linking certain passages in
Schubert to sensuous pleasures and their horrifying consequence of syphilis.
That essay confirms my sense that Cone himself sometimes experiences
music as sensual or seductive, and also shows that he is likely to be circum-
spect in his descriptions.18
Closer to the main concerns of this paper, an intriguing passage implies an
eroticized power relation between personas and their listeners. In order to clar-
ify his account of identification, Cone contrasts a listener’s relation to music
with a reader’s or listener’s relation to language. The contrast concerns the sep-
aration between the musical or linguistic “voice” and its audience: according to
Cone, it is far easier for an addressee to maintain a sense of independence in
perceiving linguistic communication. Music has an invasive aspect, a way of dis-
solving a listener’s control, that distinguishes it from language. After empha-
sizing this “extraordinary power that music seems to exert over our inner life,”
and stating that “music can speak to us only as it speaks through us,” Cone offers
a model, stating that Zerlina, in the duet “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s
Don Giovanni, “admirably symbolizes the situation” (155). Who is Zerlina, and
how might she symbolize you, or me, as a music-listener?
32 fred everett maus

In “Là ci darem la mano” Don Giovanni approaches the peasant girl Zer-
lina, drawing her away from her impending wedding to suggest that he,
rather than her fiancé, the peasant Masetto, will marry her. The duet shows
his seduction of her—his wooing, her initial resistance, and her eventual
assent just before the two start off for Don Giovanni’s house. Though the
opera is all about Don Giovanni’s successes and failures in seduction and
rape, this is the only seduction depicted onstage.19 The subject matter of the
duet—Don Giovanni’s destructive, manipulative use of his prestige and
charm—is unpleasant, but the duet is widely known and loved, a favorite bit
of the opera.
Cone mentions this familiar duet in order to make a specific, delimited
point. He brings out a subtle contradiction between textual and musical pat-
terning at the beginning of the duet. Don Giovanni addresses Zerlina invit-
ingly. Zerlina replies by describing her indecisiveness, but while her words
seem to resist his invitation, she sings them to the melody of Don Giovanni’s
invitation. According to Cone, “her melody, her subconscious reaction,
reflects his. Already, long before she gives in verbally, she has identified her-
self with his music” (155). Zerlina’s words can keep their distance from the
content of Don Giovanni’s words. She does not reply by saying back to him
what he just said to her (it would be odd if she did!), but that is exactly what
happens musically. Cone goes further, interpreting her use of his music as a
sign that a part of her, which Cone identifies as her “subconscious,” is already
beginning to give in to the attempted seduction.20 It is clever of Cone to cite
this example where the musical repetition and the verbal non-repetition
seem equally natural, and where the onstage interaction can model a rela-
tion between musical persona and audience.
But, while Cone cites this duet to illustrate that music creates identifica-
tion more irresistibly than words, the example overflows the boundaries of
his explicit purpose, in a manner typical of indirect, connotative communi-
cation. For one thing, it complicates the politics of identification. In identi-
fying with Don Giovanni by repeating his music, Zerlina models her behav-
ior on his, but the sense of equality or participation that she gains from this
mimicry is delusive. By the end of the duet, she feels that she is choosing Don
Giovanni, electing to share his prestige and power, but in fact the sensation
of choice is part of his snare. Her identification with Don Giovanni’s pur-
poses is the mechanism through which Don Giovanni achieves domination.
How much of this could one carry into Cone’s account of musical identifi-
cation? Does musical identification, rather than countering the persona’s
domination of the listener, instead somehow deepen and disguise that dom-
ination? “Là ci darem la mano” has sinister implications as a model of musi-
cal identification.
The example also raises issues about gender. Cone’s analogy offers a
banal, predictable alignment between gender and the persona/listener
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 33

opposition: the active, powerful persona resembles the masculine Don Gio-
vanni, the more passive listener the feminine Zerlina. Cone’s use of the duet
brings closer to the surface the potential association between listening and
Cone’s analogy also draws in the notion of seduction. If listeners resem-
ble Zerlina, does that mean that music acts as a lover to its listeners, seduc-
ing them in some way? In fact, the choice of example makes it hard to avoid
thoughts of musical seduction, for this duet that depicts seduction is itself
quite beautiful, an especially seductive composition. You don’t need to take
my word for it; analogies between Don Giovanni’s seduction of Zerlina and
Mozart’s seduction of the listener recur in commentaries on the duet. Crit-
ics often notice that the duet delights its listeners into a suspension of their
better judgment, just as Don Giovanni’s flattery delights, confuses, and per-
suades Zerlina.
For instance, Nino Pirrotta (1994, 127) emphasizes the music’s capacity
to persuade listeners of the reality of the seduction: “Up to this point the
recitative dialogue has been convincing in its declamation but not in the
seduction, even if we grant that Zerlina needs little convincing; the magic of
the duettino that follows convinces us.” Like Zerlina, we succumb to a magic
that produces the effect of conviction. Wye Jamison Allanbrook (1983, 262)
emphasizes that listeners enjoy the depicted seduction, rather than judging
it sternly: “ ‘Là ci darem la mano’ is the sweetest imaginable of love duets . . .
all irony and cynicism must be suspended in the fact of the sheer beauty of
this dialogue of seduction and acquiescence.” Allanbrook’s account brings a
listener’s cognitive condition especially close to Zerlina’s: intellectual resis-
tance, one’s conscious evaluation of the situation, is undone by the pull of
sensuous attraction. Paul Henry Lang (1971, 87), again, spreads the seduc-
tive qualities from Don Giovanni to Mozart: he asks, “Was there ever set to
music a more delightful, a more tender, a more ravishing and enticing acqui-
escence to a tryst than ‘Là ci darem la mano’?” Zerlina’s acquiescence, as
Mozart shows it, ravishes and entices the audience. Otto Jahn’s version of the
same idea is more graphic (1882, 3:187): “[Don Giovanni’s] seductive pow-
ers are first practised towards Zerlina . . . that which can neither be analysed
nor reproduced is the effect of the tender intensity of the simple notes,
which penetrate the soul like the glance of a loving eye.” Mozart’s notes pen-
etrate you, as though someone were gazing at you in just the right way. The
vocabulary of these passages—magic, sweetest, sheer beauty, delightful, rav-
ishing, enticing, tender intensity—shows clearly the non-rational allure that,
for these critics, undoes any more distanced or reflective judgment.
So Cone is not the only critic to sense, in the relation between Don Gio-
vanni and Zerlina, a model for the relation between the music (or some cre-
ative force, a persona or composer) and its listener. But these other writers
make the analogy specifically in terms of seduction. Cone’s discussion of “Là
34 fred everett maus

ci darem la mano” is characteristically reticent about sex and sensuality, but

I think his choice of this outstandingly seductive example as the basis for a
general model almost inevitably evokes questions of whether musical power
is seductive, whether personas seduce their listeners.
If Cone does not comment on the seductive qualities of Mozart’s music, I
think he deploys its gorgeousness instead: surely the duet appears at the con-
clusion of Cone’s argument partly because of its beauty. Incorporating the
duet into his presentation, Cone can count on it to add a special glow to the
relation between him and his audience. Part of Cone’s charm is his deft,
timely use of such charming music. Perhaps he would weaken his own seduc-
tiveness if he became too analytical about the issue of musical seduction. But
if Cone is reticent about any sexual quality in the persona’s approach to the
listener, his choice of example speaks sweetly enough, giving his account of
music a delicately sexy tinge.

batti, batti
Nonetheless, if “Là ci darem la mano” implicitly eroticizes the relationship
between persona and listener, the notion of seduction still does not offer the
most precise account of the erotic qualities of that relationship. In “Là ci
darem la mano,” Don Giovanni talks Zerlina into going away to have sex;
subsequently, were they not interrupted, they would move along to his
house and do the act. But Cone’s analogy likens Don Giovanni’s and Zerlina’s
preparatory conversation to the act of listening, which is itself, for a listener,
a consummation, not a negotiation about some future event. Listening,
then, would resemble both seduction and sex act, the two occurring simul-
taneously. But a more exact sexual analogy is possible, one that matches
many aspects of Cone’s account of listening.
To see this other analogy, let’s begin by remembering embodiment: in
sexual activities, bodies interact, and so one might ask how the bodies of lis-
teners affect these analogies. As it happens, Cone’s book—which really is
remarkably comprehensive—addresses the embodiment of listeners. In sug-
gesting that a listener “mentally performs the work he is hearing,” Cone spec-
ifies that a literal performer shapes the course of musical events, while “the
listener has no such opportunity: he must submit to the direction of others.”
This submission includes a suppression of bodily movements. Some listen-
ers might “hum, or beat time, or make other physical gestures,” but “most
sophisticated music lovers . . . frankly recognize the limitations of their roles
and sublimate their desires for physical activity” (136–37). A simpler account of
listening might deny the relevance of embodiment; Cone’s account, on the
contrary, identifies a particular bodily experience—an inhibited or “subli-
mated” desire for movement, linked to submission—as a constituent of
sophisticated musical love. As one might expect, Cone complicates this sub-
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 35

mission by adding an aspect of identification: “At the same time, an imagi-

nary physical involvement underlies the listener’s successful identification with
the musical persona. For this reason, the visual stimulation of watching a per-
formance is important” (137).
Now what is going on in a musical performance, according to Cone? Lit-
erally, the performers are moving to make sounds, in part through their own
choices, in part under the direction of the composer’s score; various listen-
ers sit in a group, silent and immobile, and pay attention, receiving and
responding to the sounds that performers direct at them. Imaginatively—that
is, in the imagination of Cone’s normative listener—there is an intense inter-
action between a persona and a listener, both understood as individuals. The
persona, embodied in the notated music and the actions of the performers,
dominates the musical sounds and the listeners. Holding still, and knowing
that she is not permitted to make any sounds, the listener submits to the per-
sona’s will, accepting the distinction between the roles of active, willful per-
sona and passive, receptive listener. At the same time, while the listener is
inhibited and dominated by the persona, she also identifies with the per-
sona’s power and activity.
A listener’s imaginative experience, then, has a strange multiple con-
sciousness, conjoining an awareness of submission (the persona’s power over
her) with a thrill of identification with power (even though that power takes
effect, in part, by domination of herself). To this doubled experience is
added, I suppose, a third aspect, a listener’s awareness that the whole con-
figuration is, to some extent, fictional and consensual, a chosen style of imag-
inative submission rather than a literal subjection to force. And the whole
complex configuration seems to be itself an object of desire. The Composer’s
Voice describes, as normative, a type of listener who seeks out such experi-
ences. She approaches each new musical encounter with the desire to find,
submit to, and identify with an all-powerful persona who will “embrace and
control” the musical material and the listener herself.
This is starting to sound kinky. It is easy to nudge Cone’s account toward
the range of sexual activities known as sadomasochism, or bondage and dis-
cipline, those activities where partners agree that one partner will relinquish
overt control and activity to the other. Indeed, Cone’s text provides us with
the words “bound,” “domination,” “submit,” “power,” and of course “con-
Sadists and masochists eroticize physical pain, and I am not suggesting
that musical experience shares in that. But classical concerts render listen-
ers still and silent, as though bound and gagged. There may also be elements
of humiliation in accepting the restricted role of listener; as Henry Kings-
bury (1988, 76–80) points out, becoming a listener instead of a performer
or composer often results from a series of failed or discouraged attempts at
musical production. More generally, sadomasochists, and the music-lovers
36 fred everett maus

that Cone describes, find intense pleasure in experiences structured by an

extreme dichotomy between active and passive roles. The classical concert,
like the S&M session, depends on different people assuming, for the
moment, clearly-defined roles as “tops” and “bottoms.”21 To fill out this
account, one could say that musical performers and listeners enjoy and per-
haps eroticize the “extractive introjection” that I described before: rather
than physical pain, the listener feels, and enjoys, the depletion of her own
inner musical initiative, the exclusive assignment of music-making to the per-
sona’s activity, and the concurrent identification with a power that originates
outside herself.
Now I want to quote a pertinent, experience-based account of masochis-
tic identification. In Dossie Easton’s and Catherine A. Liszt’s The Bottoming
Book, a well-received self-help manual, the authors indicate that S&M might
be understood as an exercise of “power-over,” of one person exerting power
at the expense of another. But, they emphasize, it is better to understand the
interaction in terms of “power-with.” “Power-with is based on the idea that
we can all become more powerful by supporting each other in being more
powerful” (Easton and Liszt 1995, 19). Or, less obscurely:

when we [acting as bottoms] give up our power, we feel more powerful. When
we give up control, we feel freer (27). When we bottom we feel fabulously pow-
erful . . . When I’m being flogged, . . . I struggle and wonder if I can take it all.
That struggle seems to make me stronger, and soon I feel intense energy run-
ning through me, as if all the force with which the whip is thrown at me is
injected into me, becomes my energy to play with. While my tops throw the
whips at me as hard as they can, I take in their power and dance in the center
of their storm (17).

These violent images are, of course, outside the range of The Composer’s Voice;
it is remarkable that they replicate Cone’s psychology of listening so closely.
As Cone might have put it, to listen to music is to grant the persona “power-
over” our inner voice; or better, it is to make the persona’s power into the
“power-with” that we share.
In relation to my present argument, the match between Cone’s account
of listening and this account of masochistic subjectivity suggests, at the least,
that Cone has developed his views in a plausible, non-arbitrary way. Starting
with an extreme contrast between the power of the persona and the sub-
mission of the listener, Cone attributes to listeners the same mingling of sub-
ordination and identification that some S&M bottoms report in their own,
similarly-structured experiences, and in a way this confirms Cone’s
I have argued that Forte and Cone share a starting point in treating each
composition as the product of a powerful controlling force, and I observed
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 37

that Forte’s text has little to say about listening, despite proclaiming its
importance. If you want to add an account of listening to the shared con-
ception of musical compositions, The Composer’s Voice offers such an account.
Cone describes sharply contrasting roles. The powerful agency of the com-
positional persona finds its complement in the submission of the listener;
simultaneous identification with the persona complicates that submission.
Given the shared starting point, Cone’s book shows where Forte might end
up if he gave direct, sustained attention to the listener’s role. In particular,
Cone’s account describes a passivity, perhaps masochism, in listening, bring-
ing out traits that are commonly devalued and associated with femininity.
They are traits that some writers would surely wish to deny or disavow.

In a well-known formulation, Anna Freud describes a common “defensive
mechanism”: someone who experiences aggression from outside may
respond by imitating the aggressive behavior. For instance, she tells the story
of a little boy who had been hurt by the dentist. He came to Freud’s home
and tried to cut various items—a piece of rubber, a ball of string, some pen-
cils (Anna Freud 1966, 111–12). As Anna Freud puts it, “by impersonating
the aggressor, assuming his attributes or imitating his aggression, the child
transforms himself from the person threatened into the person making the
threat” (113). One active/passive pairing gives way to another; in the first,
the subject is passive and then, repudiating the passive role, the same subject
becomes active instead. This account resembles Sigmund Freud’s descrip-
tion of the game of “fort” and “da” that a small boy played. As Sigmund Freud
interprets it, the child responded to his inability to control the disappear-
ance of his mother by inventing a game in which he threw away his toys, say-
ing “fort” (“gone”); with one toy on a string, he was able afterward to pull it
back and say “da” (“there”). He was “staging the disappearance and return
of the objects within his reach . . . At the outset he was in a passive situation—
he was overpowered by the experience; but, by repeating it . . . as a game, he
took on an active role” (Sigmund Freud 1961, 8–11). More broadly, Freud
identifies the active/passive antithesis as one of three basic “polarities” of
mental life. The goal of avoiding passivity is central to masculinity, which
routinely seeks the active role in active/passive complementary relationships
(Sigmund Freud 1963, 97).
These narratives, in which mastery comes through reversal of active and
passive roles, give a helpful model for understanding Forte’s essay. Forte’s
conception of a masterful, controlling force at the heart of each composition
tends to imply a subordinate, submissive role for listeners. The event of lis-
tening seems to bring together an active, controlling, perhaps aggressive
composition and a submissive, receptive listener. Cone writes about listeners
38 fred everett maus

who accept this submission as part of their listening experience, while

adding an identification with the active position. But a listener who is unwill-
ing to accept or acknowledge such passivity might react defensively: he
might want, through reversal, to escape or deny the passive role, occupying
instead a purely active role in a new pairing. Becoming a theorist or analyst
could accomplish that reversal. Listening experiences, with their passive
qualities, would be the starting point and motivation for a narrative of rever-
sal that ultimately places the theorist in active roles, as both the fantasy com-
poser in an act of imagined re-composition and the writer who displays con-
trol over verbal material.
Listening, in such a conception, is the excessively passive and, therefore,
disturbing or problematic moment in a normative progression from a com-
position to its analysis. If the motivation for analysis is to replace passivity
with a display of activity, then analysis would owe its existence to the very
experiences that it tries to disguise or displace. It seems that Forte’s essay
teaches its reader how to be a bottom in the sheets, a top on the streets.
Beyond reformulating some of Forte’s and Cone’s ideas, as I have done,
tasks of interpretation and evaluation are important but tricky.
It is natural to wonder what alternatives can be found to Forte’s and Cone’s
shared preoccupation with control—that is, discursive alternatives, other
accounts of classical music, listening, or the concert setting.23 When I first
started thinking about alternatives, I remembered my own use of The Com-
poser’s Voice, in the article “Music as Drama” and elsewhere (Maus 1988,
1991). I drew upon Cone’s ideas about agency and anthropomorphism, but
replaced the single imaginary persona with a play of indeterminate agents.
This makes it harder to tell a story about the all-powerful persona and the
submissive listener. Still, I am not sure that this difference somehow increases
the power or independence of listeners; unlike Cone, I didn’t develop my
views to include listeners in the dramatic interactions I described.
I also thought of Suzanne Cusick, who writes of “the choice I cherish,
which is to attend or not, to let the music ‘do it’ to me (which the musics I
love can only do if I have paid the most careful, intense, co-creative atten-
tion) . . . or not” (Cusick 1994, 76). On one hand, Cusick seems to value an
element of choice, a possibility of refusal, in a way that goes beyond a simple
notion of submission. On the other hand, it seems that the basic relationship
is still one of musical power over the listener; if Cusick values a particular
sense that power is continuously offered and accepted, rather than deployed
in an overwhelming way, she still seems to position the listener as either sub-
mitting or opting out.
In general, what would constitute a convincing alternative to the
active/passive complementarities that I have been describing? Here is one
line of thought. Psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin (1988) argues that partici-
pants in S&M adopt fixed roles as a way of avoiding the continuous negotia-
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 39

tions, tensions, and uncertainties of intersubjectivity between equals.24 It is

not easy for two people to recognize each other as distinct and equal; it is eas-
ier, and in a way more relaxing, to place one person in the position of power
and agency. How could one draw on Benjamin’s ideas about interaction,
uncertainty, and tension in relation to experiences of classical music?
Her ideas apply nicely to musical performance: that is, you can think of
performers and composers as, at best, entering into a tense, complex rela-
tion of shared agency and responsibility in the production of music, and you
can think of more authority-based or work-based concepts of performance
as attempts to evade the complexities of joint creativity. But it is harder to
apply this positive model of shared creation to the relation between per-
formed music and a concert audience.25 Perhaps Forte’s and Cone’s preoc-
cupation with power, even if simple and exaggerated, derives from impor-
tant aspects of classical music culture.
It may be appropriate to accept and develop an account that likens a cer-
tain normative type of musical listening to masochistic submission. An
extended consideration could draw on a rich literature about sado-
masochism, with some very distinguished recent contributions.26 Recent
discussions suggest that one should not be quick to condemn sado-
masochistic practices, and the same goes for potential musical analogs: to
compare normative listening to masochism is not necessarily a way of den-
igrating concert institutions. In this essay, I hope to have shown the rele-
vance of such issues for, among other things, the contemporary discipline
of musical analysis. As with concert life, I have tried to reach a better under-
standing of analytical experience and motivation. It would be premature to
offer negative general conclusions about analysis. However, I have sug-
gested that professional analysis involves the formation of identities around
a defensive response to musical experience: conscious recognition of this
defense and disavowal may be incompatible with the perpetuation of cur-
rent analytical styles.27

I presented versions of this paper at New York University (November 2000) and the
University of Virginia (February 2001), and benefited from stimulating discussion on
those occasions. I am especially grateful to Suzanne G. Cusick, Andrew Dell’Antonio,
Nadine Hubbs, and Katharine Eisaman Maus for reading drafts and responding with
insightful comments. Epigraph: Forte 1977, 7. The article appeared first in Journal of
Music Theory 3, no. 1 (April 1959): 1–30. I give page references to the 1977 version.
1. It is important, here and throughout, that I am writing about Forte’s essay,
rather than directly addressing Schenker’s ideas. Study of Schenker’s self-conception
and positioning of music theory is a separate, demanding enterprise, with a growing
literature. See, for instance, Dubiel 1990 or Snarrenberg 1997.
2. Snarrenberg (1994, 53), in his interesting treatment of the essay, notes that
40 fred everett maus

Forte mentions Schumann only once. For another discussion of Forte’s essay see
Kerman 1980. Marion A. Guck (1994) offers pertinent comments on another essay
by Forte.
3. Translation from Komar 1971, 16.
4. My description of the poem simplifies a little. Heine’s poem shows the lover’s
passivity and dependence but also shows, by describing the beloved as a “child” with
whom one might bargain (trading love for flowers and birds), a defensive attempt to
reverse roles, making the beloved seem dependent instead. Near the end of this essay
I will place such reversals at the center of my account of Forte. If my interpretation
of Forte’s essay is correct, the depiction of such a defensive reversal in the poem
would hardly make it more appealing to him.
5. Of course, I understand that Forte is commenting on a sketch by Schenker, and
that the omission of text is already present in the original analysis. Still, I think it is
fair to ask why he repeats this omission, especially since the music of this particular
song is odd and, in certain ways, mysterious without the words. Kerman (1980)
emphasizes the role of the poem in understanding the music. It is interesting, too, that
Forte chooses a song as his main example to introduce Schenker’s theories, as though
making a special point of Schenker’s, and his own, willingness to disregard verbal text.
6. Snarrenberg (1994, 51) states succinctly that Forte’s “reading of Freud seems
more colored by his reading of Schenker than vice versa.” However, ideas of psy-
choanalysis in the 1950s were often scientistic, and Forte’s general conception of psy-
choanalysis as, ideally, an objective, impersonal science would have been widely
shared. Much later twentieth-century psychoanalytic thought has worked to dimin-
ish this scientific allure.
7. A third kind of control comes from the obligatory nature of music’s power.
Cone is not content to say just that someone might choose to yield control to the com-
poser, as one possible relation to music: obscurely but insistently, he states that you
must yield control. (Must? Why? What if you don’t?) “When we listen to music, whether
with words or not, we must follow it as if it were our own thought. We are bound to it”
(156). His account of performance is similar: “The ‘convincing’ interpretation is the
one that forces its listener to follow it, no matter whether he knows the piece by heart
or has never heard it before” (138–39). And, in a passage I already quoted, Cone
asserts that operatic unity “forces us to look for a wider intelligence at work.”
8. It is not quite clear in Cone’s text whether the persona is the force that acts on
listeners: various passages seem to identify the music (145), the performers (137), or
the composer (in the passages just cited) as exerting this control. On the other hand,
Cone disparages listeners who experience music through imaginary relationships to
real performers rather than fictional agents or personae (119–21). An interesting
account emerges if you think of the imaginary persona as dominating the listener,
but the text leaves Cone’s intentions unclear, and perhaps he did not think the issue
through. A more intricate account, with which I shall not burden the present essay,
can acknowledge and interpret Cone’s unclarity on this issue.
9. The lack of clarity comes partly from verbal ambiguity: “domination. Or bet-
ter . . . to make the composer’s voice our own.” What does Cone mean when he
says that the second alternative is “better”? Does he mean that the formulation in
terms of identification is more accurate? Should it replace the formulation in
terms of domination? Or is Cone describing two different possibilities, two rela-
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 41

tionships to the composer’s voice, and saying that the second is preferable? Or
should the two relationships be taken together somehow? In this essay I suggest
that domination and identification co-exist in the experiences Cone describes,
but exploration of alternative readings would be fruitful, in ways I have set aside
for present purposes.
10. The background-to-foreground approach, characteristic of Schenker’s essays,
is less characteristic of Forte’s pedagogical writings. The textbook Introduction to
Schenkerian Analysis by Forte and Steven E. Gilbert (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982)
emphasizes reduction, the elimination of detail to move toward middleground and
background levels. The review by Dubiel (Musical Quarterly 70, no. 2 [Spring 1984]:
269–78) notes this departure from Schenker’s procedures.
11. Recently Benjamin has offered an alterative to this view; see W. E. Benjamin
1999, 112.
12. And Benjamin, in the heat of anti-modernist polemic, suggests that the com-
position of middlegrounds satisfies an otherwise frustrated desire for tonal compo-
sition: “If one subscribes to the notion of Schenkerian analysis as a kind of traditional
composition, it follows that many creative musicians will turn to it as a way of grati-
fying their impulses to work in a language which is natural to them” (168).
13. I am drawing on the useful vocabulary of Walton 1990.
14. Notice, by the way, that this conception of imaginary composition is in ten-
sion with another aspect of Forte’s language that I emphasized before, the specifica-
tion of certain musical elements as controlling or subordinating others. That is, one
conception treats musical elements as fictional characters, the other describes a fic-
tional creator who stands outside, and controls, all the musical material. I have iden-
tified similar tolerance of apparently contradictory descriptions in Maus 1988; Guck
(1994) also makes this point about imaginative language in analytical writing.
15. In referring to the persona in a Schenkerian analysis, then, I am not referring
to that other all too audible voice, Schenker’s own violent, vivid self-depiction—a
creature that could also be referred to, in a different usage, as the “persona” of a
Schenkerian text.
16. Cone (1989) acknowledges that analysis takes you out of the fast-paced,
sequential time of listening. But he emphasizes that the goal of analysis lies in the
return to an enhanced experience of music in real time. Unlike Cone, Schenkerian
analysts seldom try to tell this story to the end.
17. The crucial contributions are McClary 1991 and Brett, Wood, and Thomas
18. Cone’s own abstract of the essay in RILM is chastely technical, and summa-
rizes the sexual content thus: “As a final conjecture, an attempt is made to connect
this meaning with specific events of Schubert’s life” (RILM No. 82–01540-ap).
19. Curtis 2000 is valuable for its unusually direct and politically committed
account of Don Giovanni’s relation to the women in the opera.
20. There is a bit more in Cone’s interpretation. The interaction continues as the
two characters trade inconclusive, briefer phrases in a middle section. Then, when
they return to the opening material, they trade material back and forth rapidly, com-
pleting each other’s musical thoughts, while the text shows Zerlina on the verge of
assent. At the same time, when either one falls silent, an instrument continues in the
same vocal register, a subtle touch. “When the flute doubles Don Giovanni’s voice . . .
42 fred everett maus

can we not take it as an audible representation of her whole-hearted participation in

his vocal line, just as the bassoon that doubles her answer can be assumed to reveal
the extent of his identification with hers?” (155). When the flute and bassoon play, it
is as though the audience can hear the “inner singing” of the characters.
21. For other discussions of listening, analysis, and sexual positions, see Cusick
1994; Maus 1992, 1993, 1996; and Cusick 1999. The last essay also uses the vocabu-
lary of “tops” and “bottoms,” but in the gay male sense of, roughly, “inserter” and
“insertee,” rather than the S&M usage. Cusick also suggests that the “top/bottom”
vocabulary, in its relative lack of gender specificity, may improve on the vocabulary
of “feminine” and “masculine” roles in musical interaction (Cusick 1999, 494–95).
The bottom role, in either usage, has strong associations with femininity or dimin-
ished masculinity but also with male practitioners.
Rosen’s eroticized account of Mozart attributes to his music a mingling of pleasure
and pain (in expressive content rather than in the relation between music and audi-
ence—though one should not hope for too clear a distinction here). He refers to “the
violence and the sensuality at the center of Mozart’s work,” claiming that “in all of
Mozart’s supreme expressions of suffering and terror . . . there is something shock-
ingly voluptuous . . . the grief and the sensuality strengthen each other, and end by
becoming indivisible, indistinguishable one from the other” (1972, 324–25). It is dif-
ficult not to read this as a knowledgeable, thinly-veiled reference to sadomasochism.
22. Sigmund Freud, in “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes,” also emphasizes the
identification of masochists with the sadist’s position. He suggests that masochism
develops out of an earlier sadism, through reversal from an active to a passive posi-
tion. “Whether there is . . . a more direct masochistic satisfaction is highly doubtful.
A primary masochism, not derived from sadism in the manner I have described,
seems not to be met with” (Sigmund Freud 1963, 83–103). (Subsequent attempts to
integrate the “death instinct” into his theories led to changes in Freud’s account of
While this passage seems to support Easton’s and Liszt’s more experiential
account, it also suggests caution. Accounts of masochism that stress identification
with the sadist may reflect a sense that sadistic behavior is more intelligible, by itself,
than the masochist’s—that is, such accounts may result from incomprehension, or
intolerance, of masochistic subjectivity. The same may be true of Cone’s emphasis on
identification with the persona.
23. Another kind of alternative would be practical rather than discursive: rather
than seeking alternative descriptions of normative classical music behaviors, one
could contrast those norms with, for instance, traditional musical practices that are
more participatory, or recent creations such as Pauline Oliveros’s Sonic Meditations
that break down audience/performer distinctions.
24. Benjamin is in the tradition of feminist thought that disparages sado-
masochism. Alternative accounts are possible, giving an important role to mutual
understanding and support between sadomasochistic partners. My goal in this essay
is not to choose among accounts of S&M, but at most to show a way that such accounts
might be pertinent to musicology.
25. This may help explain why “On a Lesbian Relation with Music” (Cusick 1994)
moves from a relatively brief account of listening to a more extended account of per-
formance, in which Cusick construes performance as an erotic interaction between
the disciplined subject of musical analysis 43

performer and music (with no clear role for the audience). Marion Guck makes a
similar shift. She writes eloquently of the power of music: “Experience of music’s
power is definitive of music loving. The powers I’ve described seem to me genuinely
part of close involvement with music. I can understand intellectually how they might
seem so disturbing that one would want to deny them. However, I cannot say that
these experiences feel dangerous to me, nor can I endorse denying them” (1997,
347–48). But, in moving to a sustained example, a passage from a Mozart piano con-
certo, Guck suddenly places herself in the role of pianist, thereby taking on agency
in the production of the music (1997, 348–50). Again, as in Cusick, the audience dis-
appears from this scene of performance.
26. Recent publications cover an enormous methodological range, including psy-
chological and psychoanalytical theory, ethnography, social history, literary criticism,
political advocacy (pro and con), and fiction. Hanly 1995 includes a selection of
important psychoanalytical papers. The volume Masochism, trans. Jean McNeil
(1989), joins Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s short novel Venus in Furs and an influen-
tial essay, “Coldness and Cruelty,” by Gilles Deleuze. Other recent work includes Cal-
ifia 1988; Stoller 1991; “A Poem is Being Written,” in Sedgwick 1993, 177–214; Noyes
1997; Hart 1998; Savran 1998; and much more. It is an especially active area of
research and writing.
27. I presented early versions of the interpretation of Forte (the origin of the first
four sections of this essay) at the joint meeting of the American Musicological Soci-
ety, Society for Music Theory, and Society for Ethnomusicology, Oakland, 1990, and
at the conference Feminist Theory and Music, Minneapolis, 1991. Other material
dates from 2000–2001.

Musical Virtues
mitchell morris

“Lamah ragashu goyim?”
Musicological tempers were short in the ’90s, and only recently seem to have
settled into a sullenness that still occasionally flares into rancor. Many
thoughtful and serious scholars hold incommensurate points of view with
great conviction and vehemence, and find little success in persuading oppo-
nents or often even in eliminating smaller disagreements between their own
positions and those of their philosophical allies. Journals, newsletters, inter-
net sites, even some of the (quasi-)mass media, all register this intellectual
conflict, and AMS presidents and others have frequently spoken out in
attempts to reconcile the various segments of the field, or at least to establish
more moderate tones of discussion. As society has gone, so has the Society:
everyone’s feelings, it seems, are especially delicate around the turn of the
But why should it be that disagreements in musicology (not to mention
many other fields and areas of cultural endeavor) are so often vexed and vex-
ing? Sociologist of philosophy Randall Collins (1999) has argued that con-
flict in intellectual domains is a necessary stimulus to creativity, and orga-
nized by particular structural features of that intellectual field: the
composition and history of institutions; cultural capital derived from earlier
intellectual work; ideological and personal ties (friendly or hostile) among
scholars; a necessarily limited attention-field within which competition takes
place; and the contingencies of the larger history that itself defines the
course and prospects of intellectual fields. This model is enormously instruc-
tive and leads to fascinating and productive ways of thinking about the his-
tory and shape of musical scholarship—and of particular interest is its
musical virtues 45

assumption that the divergent stances upon which sustained disagreement

is grounded arise inevitably (by the fissioning of dominant positions) in the
field of attention that defines a given discipline. But Collins’s model does not
seek to explain the causes of irreconcilable intellectual differences, nor to
offer any ways that reconciliation and synthesis might come about. Debates
grow unproductively hot, scholars retreat in the face of discouragingly high
levels of repetition, and radical skepticism, though it begins to seem the only
way out of intractable argument, will most likely in the end prove merely to
be the most secure of tombs for thought. It is incumbent upon us as schol-
ars to seek some way out of this dilemma.
In conversations with assorted musicologists over the last decade, I have
occasionally suggested that our discipline would benefit from deliberate
attempts to invent (or at least revive) some varieties of moral criticism that
have relevance to music. Most often, my suggestion has been met with some
combination of skepticism, dismissal, and even disgust. To some of my inter-
locutors, I seem suddenly to have unmasked myself as a musicological
Savonarola, ready to make arguments that would in the end consign innu-
merable pieces (not to mention articles) to some academic bonfire of vani-
ties. It is as if in the minds of a number of serious and committed scholars,
to the extent that a desire for an ethical criticism of music isn’t a quaint affec-
tation on my part, it must be terribly dangerous. This in spite of the fact that
it is easy enough to identify much of the work that has gone on within musi-
cology as containing powerful, if mostly implicit, ethical assumptions. Occa-
sionally, these assumptions break the surface of texts; but I suggest that musi-
cology in all respects would be better if this happened more often and with
greater self-awareness.
Consider, for instance, the intense arguments that have gone on over the
interpretation of aspects of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (see, for example,
Robert Fink’s essay in this collection), or those about political messages and
effects in the works of Igor Stravinsky. Much ink has flowed over both cases,
some of it interesting and effective, some of it less so; what has usually dis-
appeared in more general discussions of such debates is the degree to which
the clash of arguments significantly registers a conflict between deeply
grounded ethical assumptions. Most of the writers who have enlisted in sup-
port of one or another point of view in these debates hold strong views about
the nature of music and of the knowledge of music, and (in part conse-
quently) about the acceptable range of things that may or may not be said.
These conflicts do not reduce to some parties holding that music is sus-
ceptible to kinds of verbal description or can be the object of ostensive
speech as opposed to other parties denying any genuine or efficacious con-
nection between music and regions of verbal discourse and action. We can
all hear at least some things in particular musical works. But what claims are
entailed in the things that we hear, and how are we to judge between com-
46 mitchell morris

peting claims? If Beethoven’s Ninth works through musical representations

of violence from some points of audition, then how are we to understand
such violence in relation to our own lives and the lives of others? Is the music
so concrete that we can begin to imagine that it is “like” a particular situa-
tion drawn in terms of human lives? Is music on the other hand pointing
toward and in part constituting something ineffable, not to say noumenal?
How are the various assumptions underlying such potentially incompatible
viewpoints to be reconciled or decided between? If Schubert’s affectional
ties were most characteristically and powerfully to other men such that we
are entitled to call him homosexual, and if his music incorporates gestures
that resonate with the kinds of histories and attitudes characteristic of par-
ticular homosexual people, then what is the relationship of those particu-
larities to those that are characteristic of other kinds of people? Often within
musicology we imagine such arguments to be epistemologically directed; the
questions we ask reduce to questions about what it is possible to know per-
manently and (at least provisionally) demonstrably un-falsifiably about the
object of perception. But the fire behind these arguments seems to me to
derive primarily from the way most apparently epistemological arguments
about music contain indirect arguments about morality. Why don’t we rec-
ognize this?
I think that part of our trouble imagining a moral criticism that would be
relevant to music arises from our understanding—the normative under-
standing of Western European-derived modernity—of what morality is sup-
posed to be. When we think of morals, of moralizing, of immorality, and so
on, we imagine that most of our attention is directed toward rules and prin-
ciples. Morality or ethics is a matter of what it is good to do, and why. But it
is at least as plausible, and in fact much more characteristic of moral systems
outside those of our kind of modernism, to imagine morality or ethics as
dealing with other questions as well, such as what it is good to be and why,
or what it is good to love and why.
Or what it is good to hear, and why.
If there is to be any productive way of establishing ways of thinking about
music and ethics—whether we are considering music as a kind of moral
action or moral reasoning, or our ethical position as performers, listeners,
composers, or scholars, or how the institutions that support music in our
worlds might necessarily entail an ethical dimension—then we must reflect
on the ways that moral claims are already instantiated in some of the things
we do, and to propose alternatives that we find helpful and rewarding.
Plainly, a single essay can at most begin to sketch out the rudiments of such
a project, and even then only for one small segment of a potential musical-
ethical domain. I will consider some of the problems entailed by this proj-
ect through a discussion of structural listening as a moral position, and what
I believe to be a way of imagining alternatives. Let me emphasize, as well,
musical virtues 47

that in this essay I do not discuss in any detail the ways that my project
inevitably resonates with those ongoing in the work of a number of other
scholars, in both philosophy and in music; aside from a very few notes that
gesture toward work with which my own project must in the future engage,
I will proceed as if from relatively bare discursive ground. By way of a con-
clusion, I will move to several short discussions that lay out some examples
of the starting places from which the kinds of criticism I have in mind might
begin to flourish.

The Subject of Structural Listening

In her important article, “Toward a Deconstruction of Structural Listening:
A Critique of Schoenberg, Adorno, and Stravinsky,” Rose Rosengard Subot-
nik has taken issue with uncritically maintained musical formalism, particu-
larly embodied in what she calls “structural listening,” on a number of
grounds. “Structural listening,” as Subotnik understands it, exists in a num-
ber of variants maintained especially in assorted institutions of Western
music-making and education. In one of its most powerful versions, promul-
gated by Adorno and Schoenberg, it tries
to describe a process wherein the listener follows and comprehends the unfold-
ing realization, with all its detailed inner relationships, of a generating musi-
cal conception, or what Schoenberg calls an “idea.” . . . Based on an assump-
tion that valid structural logic is accessible to any reasoning person, such
structural listening discourages kinds of understanding that require culturally
specific knowledge of things external to the compositional structure, such as
conventional associations or theoretical systems.1

Subotnik, who locates this notion as a variant of late Enlightenment ideas

about art, observes that the autonomy strongly asserted in the definition—
music’s freedom from cultural contingencies that interfere with the purity
of the abstract musical argument—was nevertheless from its inception inter-
woven with a congeries of ideas about spirituality, poetics, and other impor-
tant sources of human expressivity and significance. It is important to be
clear about the difficulties that arise from such a position. If music is
autonomous in this way, then what is the relationship between the meanings
that are imagined to arise out of the purity of its internal structures, and
those that arise out of the interaction of that structure with the materials of
the world around it? Subotnik sees these two poles as dialectical; presumably,
therefore, it would be at least theoretically possible to find a way of reconcil-
ing their contradictions at a more abstract level. This was clearly a sore point
from early on in the history of structural listening, and one which Subotnik
questions further in the later versions of the position taken by Stravinsky,
Adorno, and Schoenberg.
48 mitchell morris

Hanslick attempted to control the unruliness of historical and cultural

concerns by reliance on near-exclusive attention to the formal-technical mat-
ters of music. This strategy seemed plausible because the philosophical atti-
tudes of German Idealism, in which the apparent autonomy of music from
the world was directly related to music’s connection to the noumenal,
offered a way to make formal technical details into signposts toward the
Absolute. (This is true for Schenker as well.) In Subotnik’s view, Stravinsky,
in seeking to divorce Hanslick’s formalism from its Idealist background,
chose to ground it in overridingly quotidian concerns. But it is the very com-
bination of music as an “object” at once aesthetic and prosaic, and composi-
tion as an empirical activity, that leads to a view of music that is wholly utili-
tarian and resistant to considerations of historical and geographical
difference (Subotnik 1996, 153). This obsession with immediate purposes,
Subotnik argues, completely vitiates our ability to understand musical works
in terms of rationality. Specifically, Stravinsky “forfeits the claim of music to
validation by any universal principle of rational necessity. At most, he allows
the composition to project a plausible rationale, which suggests no necessary
basis for its own validity” (153). This means that music as understood from
Stravinsky’s position cannot possibly have anything to do with genuine
rationality (in the Kantian and post-Kantian sense), and thus by extension
music cannot have anything to do with genuine moral reasoning.
Subotnik’s presentation of this argument works from the observation that
rationality in this specific sense is established only by universalizable princi-
ples. She takes this to be a central part of the argument for structural listen-
ing, and in fact it is crucial to such an argument as it is made by Adorno, who
understands moral and structural value to be part of a complex identity. Only
to the extent that music operates by universalizable principles of logic can it
be said to be free of the moral failures of the social world within which it
operates. Universalizability is important as well for both Adorno and Schoen-
berg when they consider the role of the listener. Music that would fall under
the rubric of this concept would necessarily be accessible to any reasonably
intelligent educated person, and would make claims on us precisely by its
capacity to ground expressivity in the principles of musical logic. The dream
of such a musical logic is fulfilled for both men through what Subotnik calls
“structural substance,” observed above all through “the principle of ‘nonre-
dundancy’ in music.” This entails a number of features,
including a rationale for chromaticism and dissonance, which they explore in
detail . . . the renunciation of preexisting, externally determined conventions,
such as symmetrical phrasing and refrains (which in fact often entail redun-
dancy), as foreign to the generating idea of a composition . . . [and] the self-
developing capacity of a motivic kernel . . . what they call ‘developing varia-
tion,’ a process they often though not exclusively associate with Brahms.
(Subotnik 1996, 154–55)
musical virtues 49

Subotnik, while acknowledging the power and interest of the concept of

structural listening, nevertheless points out that it is very weak on a number
of grounds. I cannot summarize all of her discussion here, so let me take a
few points upon which I will then expand. First, structural listening
imagines both composition and listening to be governed by a quasi-Kantian
structure of reasoning that, by virtue of its universal validity, makes possible, at
least ideally, the (presumed) ideological neutrality and, hence, something like
the epistemological transparency of music. (Subotnik 1996, 157)

One of the problems with such a notion arises from the way that it inevitably
favors only a narrow range of possibilities among various musics—those are
specifically the panromanogermanic canon of the eighteenth and nine-
teenth centuries, with a few stragglers in the twentieth century.2 Most music
has never aspired to the autonomy demanded in the model of structural lis-
tening, and so it must be consigned to a lesser position.
Second, although the kind of music elevated by structural listening must
demonstrate its rationality by subordinating itself to some unifying principle
(in practice the principle of motivic development), this kind of subordina-
tion is characteristic of only a limited range of works within the panro-
manogermanic canon itself. Furthermore, this rationality, while a powerful
criterion for success as determined by structural listening, seems to require
balance by the musical establishment of a complex sonic-intentional domain
that can be interpreted as signs of individuality, but it is exactly such indi-
viduality that can be spoken of within models of structural listening only with
the greatest difficulty. This leads us as scholars into poor and misleading
arguments. (Simply consider our notorious failure to provide convincing
analytical accounts of the music of Ockeghem.) All in all, such difficulties
seem in Subotnik’s understanding to limit unacceptably our abilities as
scholars and listeners to engage with a wide variety of musics, a wide variety
of interpretive possibilities.

Breaching the Subject

Subotnik generously demonstrates that structural listening is appropriate for
only a small selection of musical works and styles, and that it requires a larger
economy of models of listening (and analysis) in order to be appropriately
effective. It is better, in other words, to imagine structural listening as part
of a larger system of mutually incommensurable and incompatible strategies,
to be employed as the occasion warrants. This is an eminently practical pro-
posal, and one that certainly deserves to be established within the various
subdisciplines of music. But structural listening should be subjected to some
further pressing critique for the sake of productive thought about music and
ethics. We must find ways to breach the subject, in every sense of the phrase.
50 mitchell morris

Note that structural listening aspires to a freedom from everything that

might be thought contingent: social function and genre, references to cere-
mony, dogma, all kinds of historical context ought not to be considered
when thinking about music in terms of its quiddity. Although Joseph Kerman
famously derided analyses of Schumann’s Dichterliebe for neglecting lyrics,
surely those analysts would be correct to maintain that the demands of musi-
cal autonomy—certainly the notion of autonomy they wish to elevate—
require the discarding of the words. Along with such an austere approach to
musical works, commitment to structural listening would mandate a focus on
the internal developments of works, particularly motivic development, as the
sure guarantee of rationality and therefore of significance. Since some mea-
sure of individuality seems to be crucial to our nomination of particular
works (and therefore composers) as exemplary, however, it follows that
structural listening is always already supplemented by ad hoc references to
originality, expressivity, and other such individuating notions.3 These kinds
of values, promulgated in specific examinations of pieces, are also reflected
in our notions of large-scale music history. What is the history of music, com-
monly understood, if it is not the history of successive refinements in musi-
cal technique?4 Adorno’s greatest difference from Grout in this case may lie
in his belief that individuality and rationality had gone increasingly out of bal-
ance after Beethoven, and that this presented an insoluble moral problem.
The problems and some possible ways out of them arise when we juxta-
pose this account of music with a recent discussion of modernist notions of
selfhood, and the moral claims they seem to embody. In his influential study
Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (1989), the philosopher
Charles Taylor argues that three of the central components of our modern
understanding of what it is to be a self are: atomistic individualism, the cen-
trality of “disengaged instrumental reason,” and romantic notions of expres-
sivity as the result of an internal “deep” self. I will take up a short discussion
of Taylor’s first two components as the most relevant for my purposes.
Atomistic individualism may be taken to be some variety of the claim that
persons are to be understood in an important sense as independent of the
social worlds within which they move, and that this independence should be
thought of as trumping in most respects the social embeddedness of persons.
That is, although we are born into and educated through specific social
worlds, the crucial part of ourselves can be, and indeed ought to be,
independent of those worlds. In a sense, then, individuals are best thought
of as prior to the social worlds within which they find themselves. There is no
need to demonstrate the omnipresence of this idea, since it ramifies in
uncounted ways within contemporary cultures. There is unquestionable
power in such an idea, and it is attached to a distinctive conception of the dig-
nity of individual persons. And arguably, this fundamental moral vision is
musical virtues 51

centrally responsible for such widespread allegiance to the notions of atom-

istic individualism that seem to serve it so well.
By “disengaged instrumental reason,” Taylor describes the kind of reason
defined primarily by matters of procedure, and conceived of as necessarily
separate from contingencies. The best model for this is found in mathemat-
ics: a binomial equation is a universal. The American legal system, with its
strong focus on correct procedure as the best way of securing a minimum of
injustice, can be taken to provide a framework for the attempted exercise of
disengaged instrumental reason as well, and its frequent failures and bad
decisions only make more poignant the untenability of its ideal disengage-
ment. Surely the best way of grounding all kinds of reason within an indi-
vidual would be to seek to apply this kind of reason as extensively as possible.
In terms of moral thought and action, for instance, this would require that
we make ethically sound decisions by means of principles that could be
understood as universal and accessible to all rational human beings; this
would also, however, require the removal of any contingencies that could be
shown to be merely historically or geographically bounded. The results
would matter as well only to the extent that they were gained by rigorous
observance of the procedural logic.
These principles not only make sense in the context of reflections on self-
hood and morality, but also can be seen to operate within the concept of
structural listening. Pieces instantiate atomistic individualism to the extent
that they can be regarded as essentially separate from specific social con-
texts, whether we seek justification in structures, transcendentalisms, or
some other sources of autonomy. Again, following Subotnik, rationality in
such an abstracted interpretive frame tends to be connected to particular
uses of the term “logic,” as if musical procedures contained the kinds of truth
content that allowed them to function within chains of procedural logic.
This situation should suggest that we take structural listening to embody a
strong claim not only about what is good in music, but also about what kind
of moral activity we may imagine a piece of music to contain, evoke, or per-
haps summon. That is, music that is proved adequate through structural lis-
tening may be presented to us as music that contains precisely those features
that are adequate to us in terms of our moral sense. Music occupies itself
with moral thought and action in ways that strongly resemble the ways in
which human beings occupy themselves with moral thought and action. Our
problem arises from the fact that this system of morality can then be demon-
strated to be incoherent and possibly unsustainable. The philosopher Alas-
dair MacIntyre, whose widely noticed critique of modern morality will
occupy much of my attention here, argues that the two best modern solu-
tions to the problem of manufacturing morality (understood in this context
as a question of rules) are those proposed by Kant and by the utilitarian
52 mitchell morris

philosophers. But MacIntyre goes to great lengths to point out that not only
are these two solutions vulnerable on many logical grounds, they also have
no historical record of effectiveness at all. He dramatically proposes that for
such reasons, they be discarded in favor of ethical thinking that employs the
older concept of “virtue.” But such a concept can only be understood
through historical accounts.

Selves and Others

MacIntyre has noted that in classical Latin and Greek there is no equivalent
to “the moral” as we understand it. The Latin “moralis, like its intellectual
predecessor ‘êthikos’ . . . means ‘pertaining to character’ where a man’s
character is nothing other than his set dispositions to behave systematically
in one way rather than another, to lead a particular kind of life” (MacIntyre
1984, 38). There is an important history behind this. The Greek word aretê,
usually translated as “virtue,” means something closer to “excellence” in the
Iliad and Odyssey.5 This means that the term can apply to things we do not
nowadays usually consider especially virtuous: uncommon physical grace or
beauty, for example, or special skill in performing a particular social role.
Such a definition assumes the unity of morality and social structure in the
specific configuration of a heroic society. MacIntyre sees this as the histori-
cal background to the account of virtue developed most comprehensively in
Classical Athens, where various parties, including the sophists, Plato, the
tragic playwrights, and Aristotle, all attempted to resolve the incompatibili-
ties between Homeric virtue and the society of the polis by offering new
accounts of virtue that would remedy the defects of their predecessors. The
most adequate Classical formulation, for MacIntyre, is that of Aristotle. In
MacIntyre’s understanding of Aristotelian virtue, it is crucial to note that any-
thing that might be considered a virtue is defined with respect to a (good)
telos. If the Good for a human being is eudaimonia—happiness, well-being,
flourishing—then virtues are those qualities that aid the achievement of
eudaimonia. Thus, any argument about a particular virtue will presuppose a
particular conception of human flourishing, or at least it will be open to a
further argument about that conception’s definition. Furthermore, it will
also follow that virtue cannot be exclusively about action, but must also
include feeling and attitude. Character—especially as it relates to our picture
of a particular type of person we consider the model of human flourishing—
will matter more than rules. The teleological character of Aristotelian virtue
finds a parallel in that of Christianity, in that Christian notions of the Good
also presuppose an ultimate form of human flourishing. Nevertheless, the
degree of emphasis the two models place on the role of the supernatural, the
function of law, and the roster of virtues differs strikingly, and MacIntyre
holds that it was not until Aquinas, for a variety of historical reasons, that a
musical virtues 53

comprehensive synthesis of the two models took place. The specifics of this
synthesis matter less for MacIntyre’s overall narrative than his idea that, how-
ever briefly, a coherent picture of moral reasoning was established. It is this
synthesis that was rejected during the Reformation and the Enlightenment,
resulting in the confused moral landscape within which MacIntyre’s enquiry
If we accept MacIntyre’s argument that the models of moral reasoning
that took hold in the Enlightenment were in the end internally incoherent,
and that our most plausible hope of making sense requires the restoration
of the notion of virtue in its Classical sense, how are we to do so without
recourse to clearly superseded ideological accompaniments? (I am thinking
here of Aristotle’s “metaphysical biology,” and his damaging unhistorical
assumptions that the polis, as the highest political organization established by
natural law, demands the exclusion of numerous human beings, notably
women, slaves, and anyone at all who works.) MacIntyre proposes that we
substitute highly specific forms of social telos for the biological telos charac-
teristic of Aristotle’s account. The substitution requires definitions of the
terms “practice” and “tradition” so that virtue can be understood to operate
within them, as well as an emphasis on the notion of the self as narratively
A practice is

any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human

activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the
course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropri-
ate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that
human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and
goods involved, are systematically extended. (MacIntyre 1984, 187)

The circularity of this definition is crucial: in our attempts not only to hold
to the standards of a practice but also to surpass them, we interrogate and
gain space to improve those very standards. The grounding of this definition
in MacIntyre’s description of virtue from Homer to Aquinas is apparent. The
account in After Virtue goes on to outline the difference between the general
concept of a practice and more specific activities that we could call “tech-
nique,” and to make clear that the range of practices is wide enough to
encompass music and farming, teaching and some understandings of poli-
tics. To be engaged in the practice of music—any of a number of practices
of music—requires skill in producing the appropriately “organized sounds,”
but producing sounds does not encompass the whole of what we mean by the
practice of music. I take it that we acknowledge this when we praise or blame
specific performances on grounds larger than those of particular errors of
execution, including those difficult to articulate sensations and intuitions we
54 mitchell morris

group under the rubric of “expression” or “interpretation.” And the dis-

course in which we evaluate specific performances is itself a part of the prac-
tice of music writ large, shaped by and shaping those performances.
But it is also necessary to unpack the definition further. By making an
implicit distinction between external and internal goods MacIntyre means
to separate those rewards such as status, money, and security from those that
can be apprehended only by engaging in the practice. The practice of music
is not the only way to acquire such things as status and money—certainly not
the best way to acquire them!—hence these goods are external. Those things
that we discuss by reference to the various evaluative words at our disposal
are internal, in that they can be got by no other means. A good performance
is good in its various ways whether or not it is paid for. This distinction fur-
thermore suggests that external goods tend to be limited, acquired in com-
petition, and by extension held individually, while internal goods, though
acquired in competition as well, are held in such a way that they benefit all
those who engage in the given practice. Consider the qualities of grace or
subtlety or power as exemplified in one or another performance by a par-
ticularly skilled musician and you consider internal goods; consider salaries
and photo shoots and you consider external goods.7
Such internal goods are dependent on our entry into the particular
social configuration within which standards of excellence are subject to
some kind of authority. This authority, to be sure, is always subject to histor-
ical revision and development—in fact, for the maintenance of a practice,
development would seem to be a requirement—but its dependence on the
social never absolves us from giving our allegiance to some extent to the for-
mation within which it is constituted. As MacIntyre, noting that practices
entail specific kinds of relationships, insists, “the virtues are those goods by
reference to which, whether we like it or not, we define our relationship to
those other people with whom we share the kind of purposes and standards
which inform practices” (MacIntyre 1984, 191). This is precisely the point
that can be expected to trouble many who have always given their allegiance
to modernist notions of the self. Authority? Whose authority, and by what
right? MacIntyre answers, “To enter into a practice is to enter into a rela-
tionship not only with its contemporary practitioners, but also with those
who have preceded us in the practice, particularly those whose achievements
extended the reach to its present point. It is thus the achievement, and a for-
tiori the authority, of a tradition which I then confront and from which I have
to learn” (MacIntyre 1984, 194). It is important to be clear that MacIntyre’s
position need not reduce to a pallid, dishonest, vulgarized Arnoldism of “the
best that has been said and thought,” with no reference to historical partic-
ularities. Indeed, he distinguishes practices carefully from the institutions
that at once sustain them by their attention to external goods, and corrupt
musical virtues 55

them by that same attention. The developing and sustaining of institutions

demands certain virtues just as much as the practices the institutions sup-
port, though the configuration of virtues is not necessarily the same. To think
at once of practices and institutions as necessarily historical therefore
requires a careful if limited form of relativism that must always beware of
hubristic universalist claims.
To return to a practical example, to examine the virtues that might be
contained in Lully’s Armide, we must disentangle various kinds of musical
virtues and vices from the virtues and vices that sustained the institutions
through which the music could be realized; though we are likely to under-
stand the moral qualities in each case as deeply intertwined, they are never-
theless not necessarily identical.
So far MacIntyre’s account is devoted to defining virtue in a way that
removes many of the problems in Aristotle’s account. Let me emphasize
once again the irreducibly social nature of virtues as they arise within prac-
tices and the institutions that house them. But of course virtues cannot be
restricted only to practices and institutions, though they may find their most
durable home there; a primary goal of virtue theory should consist in locat-
ing the Good (admittedly, an extraordinarily complex and possibly irre-
ducible object) within human life as a whole. An entire human life can eas-
ily be wracked with conflicts between virtues, or what appear to be virtues.
Not all goods may be compatible. This would seem to install the autonomous
individual firmly at the point of moral origination from which s/he seemed
to have been dislodged. Furthermore, if virtue is defined in such a way that
it requires some kind of end, it would seem that virtue must be restricted to
aspects of a given human life and thus have little or no way to speak to that
life as a whole. If we wish to preserve some kind of social telos here as well, we
must ask ourselves what form it might take.
In modern life, subject to the complicated effects of our incoherent dis-
tinctions between public and private as well as our central allegiance to atom-
istic individualism and its concomitants, it is our understanding of what
makes a self that can be seen to produce much of the problem. MacIntyre’s
solution to this begins with the argument that human actions, to be intelli-
gible, always require description under a certain frame of intentions, which
themselves may be ordered:

We identify a particular action only by invoking two kinds of context, implic-

itly if not explicitly. We place the agent’s intentions, I have suggested, in causal
and temporal order with reference to their role in his or her history; and we
also place them with reference to their role in the history of the setting or set-
tings to which they belong. In doing this, in determining what kind of causal
efficacy that agent’s intentions had in one or more directions, and how his
56 mitchell morris

short-term intentions succeeded or failed to be constitutive of long-term inten-

tions, we ourselves write a further part of these histories. Narrative history of a
certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characteriza-
tion of human actions. (MacIntyre 1984, 208)

Crucial to MacIntyre’s understanding of such narrative is the notion of intel-

ligibility. That is, we must be able to place human action such that it links the
action to a context of “intentions, motives, passions and purposes.”8 Only
such a context allows us to explain and respond. Borrowing a term from
Bakhtin, we might say that intelligible narrative is what makes it possible for
meaning to be dialogic.
Of course, the self constituted dialogically is not thereby bereft of all per-
sonal identity. On the contrary, MacIntyre points out that, although selves
enter the world already implicated in a number of different narratives, sub-
ject to fortune and aspects of their continually developing histories, their dia-
logic nature means that not only are selves answerable in various ways to
other selves, they also have the power to question those other selves. In moral
terms, we are able to ask not only about the Good for ourselves, but about
the Good for other selves particularly and generally. Put this way, “The unity
of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest. Quests sometimes fail, are
frustrated, abandoned or dissipated into distractions; and human lives may
in all these ways also fail. But the only criteria for success or failure in a
human life as a whole are the criteria of success or failure in a narrated or
to-be-narrated quest” (MacIntyre 1984, 219).
If that quest is a quest for the Good, a quest that in seeking the Good con-
tinually learns more adequate ways of understanding what it seeks, then the
virtues are not only those things that prove necessary to practices, but also
those that enable this larger narrative quest. Furthermore, since such a Good
may be sought narratively only within the contexts of the social identities we
have received or claimed and incorporated, revised, or rejected, that Good
can never be comprehended from the standpoint of a disembodied, isolated
individual. That is to say, the Good, to be apprehended at all through the
virtues, must be apprehended with respect to particular traditions or com-
bination of traditions.
The term “tradition,” in line with the self-reflexive definition of “prac-
tice,” denotes not only a particular array of goods as articulated through
practice(s), but also the arguments about how that array of goods or their
constitution through practice is to be understood. There is once again a cru-
cial historical dimension to the term:

Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through generations, some-

times through many generations. Hence the individual’s search for his or her
musical virtues 57

good is generally and characteristically conducted within a context defined by

those traditions of which the individual’s life is a part, and this is true both of
those goods which are internal to practices and of the goods of a single life.
Once again the narrative phenomenon of embedding is crucial: the history of
a practice in our time is generally and characteristically embedded in and
made intelligible in terms of a larger and longer history of the tradition
through which the practice in its present form was conveyed to us; the history
of each of our own lives is generally and characteristically embedded in and
made intelligible in terms of the larger and longer histories of a number of tra-
ditions. (MacIntyre 1984, 222)

Traditions, as arguments about goods, provide another way in which the

virtues are shaped and become visible; they also find themselves sustained by
the virtues they help form. The same criteria of rationality that apply to prac-
tices also apply to traditions, so that to be rational, traditions must demon-
strate the highest degree of internal coherence historically possible. Com-
plex internal disagreements and debates are to be expected, because it is
through argument that coherence is tested. Between traditions also there
may be areas of agreement as well as areas of incompatibility and incom-
We can at this point begin to see how structural listening may be under-
stood as a tradition within which a particular set of practices (in composi-
tion, performance, listening, and commentary) have developed over the
course of the last two hundred years or so. Structural listening necessarily
refuses some virtues and requires others (obviously, since all kinds of listen-
ing do), and does so in the service of specific (and specifically elevated)
notions of musical goods. The difficulty lies in some aspects of the goods to
which structural listening aspires.
These goods may entail the following claims: that music’s relation to
human life is one whereby the work can be treated as an abstract person—
the classical meaning of persona thus renovated in sound; that to some
extent (nearly always left unspecified) music can act upon individual human
beings through a kind of sympathetic magic, such that the music’s “harmony”
can shape the soul’s “harmony” in fairly direct ways; that a salutary difference
between music and life is that in music, contingency can be reduced and per-
haps even eliminated; that music’s value adheres precisely in its consequent
freedom from the vulnerabilities of accident and circumstance, which free-
dom can then be translated into individual terms; that the best way to cap-
ture this picture of the Good requires a severely chastened language of dis-
cussion, not only to diminish any interference with the transfer of freedom
from music to listener, but also to exemplify the uncontextualized being that
is sought; that this Good is also only adequately available to those able to
establish a kind of contemplative life for themselves; and that allegiance to
58 mitchell morris

this Good also requires that it present itself as universal and not open for
debate. This complex sequence of assumptions establishes an image that has
as much potential imaginative power, it seems to me, as Plato’s myth of the
cave: call it the myth of the sounding noumenon, maybe. But I fear that few
of these assumptions may be true. The power of the image may chiefly come
from a poignant sense that it cannot be sustained.

“e voi nasceste con diverso ingegno”

So what is to be done? Perhaps we should begin to think where we begin to
listen, in medias res: first principles are not what we reason from, but what we
reason to, and thinking about musical virtues is difficult and various enough
that it seems likely that any first principles will in this domain remain an
abstract telos in human life.10 And it seems best to avoid the single most char-
acteristic mistake of writers who speculate on music as an activity of moral
reflection or music as a source of moral effects: that is, the error of assum-
ing a direct and unproblematic correspondence or sequence of transmission
from musics to persons.11 Instead, our considerations of musical virtues—
what they are, how they are to be located, the extent of their relevance in par-
ticular situations—can most profitably begin, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has
suggested in another context, by risking the obvious: people are different.12
In this case, we may note that people are musically different, in such ways
that we as yet have only the most inadequate means of approaching their
musical differences.
The great benefit of the dialogic, tradition-minded approach I have been
outlining here arises from its requirement that any sense of ethics be based
in some specific social structure(s) instead of an abstract collection of
propositions. In this case, our understanding of the ethical import of listen-
ing (specific acts of listening by specific people, directed toward specific
music) cannot be separated from the careful specification of our place, and
from an equally careful sense of those to whom we are speaking. And yet the
kinds of projects that grow from just this specification attempt to accommo-
date such variance that any statement will necessarily be incomplete.
It is to make concrete these interpretive desiderata that I will end with
three short musical discussions. In each case, I have tried to frame some
potential lines of ethical inquiry that resonate with ethical moments within
the pieces. These accounts do nothing to exhaust the number of moments
from which ethical inquiry can begin, and they do not pretend to treat fully
any of the issues raised. As commentary, my discussions will be of moral use
only to the extent that they engage the ears of others in a consideration of
what additional virtues or vices may be heard in these specific pieces, in what
musical virtues 59

circumstances, and by whom. I speak, as I listen, in the service of the poten-

tial virtue of difference.

Johannes Brahms, Intermezzo, op. 118, no. 2
It is most true, stylus virum arguit,—our style betrays us.
robert burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

Although writers and listeners note the pervasive tone of melancholy in

much of Brahms’s late music, its presence has seemed less important in the
critical literature on Brahms than many other musical qualities. Observa-
tions about the music’s formal structures—ambiguous tonalities, subtle har-
monic and motivic relationships, delicate reinterpretations of traditional for-
mal schemes—have typically provided the foci for discussion, and attention
paid to such questions has often been demonstrably worthwhile.13 But even
so, we are entitled to ask what we can hear in Brahms’s late music in light of
its variegated sadnesses, and in what ways we can think about the ethical tra-
jectories of our discernment. Let me take up this question briefly with
respect to the well-known Intermezzo op. 118, no. 2.
The pleasures of melancholy in Brahms are inevitably bound up with
questions about what it means to be a gebildet listener in an epoch of self-con-
scious lateness. The lineaments of such a Bildung are relatively easy to trace:
Brahms’s elaborate indebtedness to other composers, as it is instantiated in
allusiveness and adherence to lapsed idioms, is among other things a multi-
valent way of soliciting certain kinds of listener cultivation at the same time
that it also describes that cultivation and enacts some of the processes by
which it is acquired.14 Its seeming obviousness masks great interpretive
depths, chiefly those concerned with stance and tone. The rich presence of
other music in Brahms’s work gains additional reinforcement from the pow-
erful learnedness of his style, and these features together crucially reinforce
a notion of lateness as Bildung. These terms—melancholy, allusiveness,
learning, lateness—are so much a commonplace of the critical literature,
however unexamined they often are in practice, that it becomes easy to for-
get that the very notion of lateness possesses an intense ethical charge. On
the one hand, retrospectivity as a mode of feeling can be condemned as
effete, crabbed and conservative, life-hating, cowardly, academic, Alexan-
drian, and so on.15 On the other, it is important for us as listeners to be aware
of how this retrospectivity exists in a larger ecology of feeling through which
we can reimagine the emotions that inform such concepts as inheritance,
memory and nostalgia, alienation, limitation, and self-revelation.
I want to consider two small but specific moments of listening, together
60 mitchell morris

with several more general musical features, from which we might begin a
consideration of the ethics of lateness in this Intermezzo. Listening to the
opening gesture of the piece, I am always struck by how close it is to ending
by the second measure, and yet how reluctant it is to close. The affective ten-
sion at the beginning is mostly the result of the extended D-major triad in
second inversion, which is audibly “unreal”: the ear (well, my ear) pulls vainly
at the upper-hand Dn and Fs at the beginning of measure 1 in the hopes that
they will follow the lead of the initial right-hand notes and fall to Cs and En,
and when Brahms intensifies this desire by pushing on to the expansive tenth
of An and Fs at the downbeat of measure 2, the push to ending seems inten-
sified. And yet the music carries on. If we must think in structural terms, we
can note that the tonic triad of A major is only genuinely resolved at the very
ends of the A sections, and thus we are able to hear the need for resolution
in the opening two bars as partially satisfied by the music’s fall to the domi-
nant in measure 4, by changing inversions and assisting the tonicization of
the dominant in the following phrase.16 Was this chord a functional but
strangely placed subdominant, or was it a temporarily unresolved melodic
shape? Both, of course, and movingly unsatisfactory either way.
It’s no great art to begin a piece in the German canonical tradition with a
gesture of farewell, and its quality of commonplaceness is part of the point.
The emotions that ought to accompany a phrase such as “there is nothing
new under the sun” will most clearly appear when even the threat of newness
seems to be excluded. It follows as well that we are summoned to assume stock
emotional responses at the very beginning of this piece, but as the music con-
tinues, we might realize: (1) that the very ordinariness of stock emotional
responses, though usually regarded as the source of their unsatisfactoriness,
can be understood as on the contrary part of what makes them worthy of as
much attention as those rare and thrilling “original” responses—the
omnipresence in life of stock emotions, treated here artistically, might begin
to suggest something of their intrinsic value within the frames of human lives;
(2) that, in any case, stock emotional responses can be understood as much
more nuanced than we are ordinarily inclined to think, such that their typo-
logical nature ought not to preclude them from being taken seriously. The
music of this Intermezzo in this way begins to be reminiscent of the poetry of
someone like Thomas Hardy, in which verse after verse reveals how conven-
tional poetic emotions turn out to be immensely rewarding and subtle.
Pessimism and its attendant emotions are multifarious, perhaps always
more so than simple happiness, and this is again apparent in the Intermezzo
in places such as the lovely sad melody that opens the B section of the piece.
One of the most affecting points in the melody occurs at measure 54; this is
the second measure of a phrase that acts as both a very weak consequent and
also amplification of the initial phrase in the B section. The affective weight
is for me concentrated in the right-hand minor sixth, Gs/En, an appoggiatura
musical virtues 61

that clearly means to sink down by step to Fs/Dn, but never does so. There
are several larger reasons to care about this unresolved appoggiatura. First,
the unresolved Gs sits a tritone away from the root of the chord, and this
sonority often tends to appear in situations of longing (cf. the famous first
resolution in the Prelude to Tristan as an obvious example), and tritone
appoggiaturas appear in a number of places in this Intermezzo. Moreover, the
antecedent phrase of the B section is importantly out of kilter metrically, and
measure 54 is ironically the moment when the metrical planes seem to be
coming back into alignment. The hanging appoggiatura can begin to stand
in for numerous other moments in the Intermezzo where what is implicitly
promised, what is so nearly immediate that longing begins to be replaced by
satisfaction, in the end falls away into lack. Even the deliberately weakened
final cadence—a resolution oddly “inauthentic” in its voicing—sounds hol-
low. It begins to seem as if lack is the normal state of affairs in this piece, as
indeed it is in human life, and we can push this line of thought further in
connection with the piece by coming to interpret it as a way of teaching us
what it means to live with reduced expectations, to learn to reveal this
poverty as partially (though only partially) compensated for by art, and thus
to find a way of showing that regret, like death, is the mother of beauty.

Steve Reich, Come Out
We flinch and grin,
Our flesh oozing towards its last outrage.
That which is taken from me is not mine.
geoffrey hill, “I Had Hope When
Violence Was Ceas’t”

Steve Reich’s 1966 piece Come Out begins with a real voice. To quote Reich’s
own program notes:

it was originally part of a benefit presented at Town Hall in New York City for
the re-trial, with lawyers of their own choosing, of the six boys arrested for mur-
der during the Harlem riots of 1964. The voice is that of Daniel Hamm, now
acquitted and then 19, describing a beating he took in Harlem’s 28th precinct
station. The police were about to take the boys out to be “cleaned up” and were
only taking those that were visibly bleeding. Since Hamm had no actual open
bleeding he proceeded to squeeze open a bruise on his leg so that he would be
taken to the hospital. “I had to like open the bruise up and let some of the
bruise blood come out to show them.” (Reich 1987)

Reich deserves credit, certainly, for his desire to account for the social and
personal particulars of his piece, but such specificity is also clearly necessary
62 mitchell morris

to the aesthetic or ethical trajectory of Come Out. It matters a lot that we are
listening to Hamm’s voice in all its grainy individuality, with its accent and
idiosyncrasies of pace and pronunciation intact, and that his voice is describ-
ing a specific assault not only on his bodily integrity but also and more
importantly on his claims to dignity. There’s no question of us understand-
ing the text, because it’s repeated in full three times before Reich’s musical
processes begin their work (this takes up the first 20 seconds of the piece).
When the music launches into its sequence of repetitions of the final
phrase, “come out to show them,” however, interpretation must take
multiple but probably incompatible directions. By approximately thirty rep-
etitions of the phrase (up to around 1'8") we can hear that some slow trans-
formation is taking place: Hamm’s speech acquires more and more rever-
beration, and after the first minute of the piece gradually dissociates into first
two vocal layers, then more and more fragments of sound, panning between
speakers. Within three minutes the pitch centers of each syllable (approxi-
mately between Dn/Bn/Cs and Ef/Cn/Dn according to my piano) become
more distinct, and the specific syllables fade increasingly into the back-
ground, sibilants, dentals, then finally guttural. That is, the words “come out”
stay in the texture until around 8'40" in part because C, the only guttural con-
sonant and the first consonant of the phrase, can retain its individuality
under the pressure of Reich’s tape manipulations far longer than the nasal
M or the sibilants S and TH, and even longer than the dental T.
To return to the relentless progress of the music, by minute 4 Daniel
Hamm’s words are increasingly submerged in musical process, and even the
residual presence of the words “come out,” which begin to seem like a bass
part, fades by about 8'40". The remaining approximately four minutes of the
piece are a ferocious continuation of abstract procedures.
Critics who have written on Come Out have mostly concentrated on the way
it was made—the kind of account most likely to persuade readers who are
committed to the tenets of structural listening.17 But Reich’s own words on
the technique of composition are much more relevant for a consideration
of ethics: “By using recorded speech as a source of electronic or tape music,
speech-melody and meaning are presented as they naturally occur. By not
altering its pitch or timbre, one keeps the original emotional power that
speech has while intensifying its melody and its meaning through repetition
and rhythm” (Reich 1987). Reich furthermore mentions his interest in the
poetry of William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, and Robert Creely as a way
of connecting Come Out to his other work, presenting the piece as a problem
in the setting of American speech as well as invoking the poets’ interest in
the connection between art and distinctively American ways of world-
making. But the central point to be taken up in an ethical hearing of Come Out
might best begin from Reich’s claims that the locus of meaning in speech
comes from its connotative dimensions, so that emotion is the province of
musical virtues 63

speech as music. Note that his comments suggest a model in which music
and speech shade into one another, and speech itself is internally divided
such that meaning is to “speech-melody” as thought is to emotion, or per-
haps idea is to body. We might conclude, then, that Reich would wish us to
hear the development of sound in Come Out as retaining the emotional con-
tent of Hamm’s narrative all of the way through the piece.
The problem is, content matters, and its gradual attenuation in Come Out
is difficult to interpret. But it is not that hard to provide exegetical possibil-
ities, and here is a short list:

1. The disappearance of speech can be taken as a metaphor for the crush-

ing of individuality under one or another Ideological State Apparatus. When
we hear Hamm’s words fade into procedure we hear an actual human being
ground up in an infernal machine that resembles bureaucracy, administra-
tion, or any other incarnation of the principle of disengaged instrumental
reason in the way it so easily disarticulates meaning from the bodies bearing
it. The very susceptibility of the piece to be taken as a kind of “Absolute
Music,” moreover, can establish an uncomfortable resonance between what
we are usually taught to hear as abstract musical process and the mechanisms
of modern state management. Reich’s rigor thus contains its own critique of
the very system that creates it.
2. The disappearance of speech signals Reich’s triumphant ability to
absorb the materials of someone else’s voice and someone else’s pain into his
own serene compositional processes. Real violence is transmuted into a rep-
resentation of violence in a way that renders it unaccountable and ultimately
inconsequential. When the axiom “It must be abstract” is taken so seriously,
what happens to real people in real pain? Granted, the piece was performed
on a benefit concert, and raised money for legal defense. Is the sentimen-
tality risked in this process so potentially harmful that the piece ought not to
be heard in any other contexts? And who gets the royalties, anyway?
3. The disappearance of speech comes as a result of Reich’s articulating
something quite profound about violence, time, and repetition. Many
people who have experienced serious violence, whether as the result of
human action or as the result of an accident, report significant temporal dis-
tortions. Time speeds up, slows down, or seems to recur. Slowing and repe-
tition are the essence of this piece, as the moment of trauma cycles through
ever distilled versions of its moment of occurrence. With each reiteration of
the self-inflicted violence implicitly coerced by the police, the account pales
in comparison with the literal re-presentation of that violence. Words disap-
pear into action. By the end of the piece, are we hearing an audible repre-
sentation of the bruise blood itself?
4. The disappearance of speech signifies an act of mourning. Mourning
and melancholy come, according to Freud, from a refusal to relinquish the
64 mitchell morris

object lost. What has been lost is not only the dignity of Daniel Hamm as a
human being, but also the dignity of his oppressors and the dignity of all
bystanders, and in fact this is an object that cannot be released without dev-
astating moral consequences. Reich’s obsessive repetitions take the structure
of mourning and allow it to shape the piece in such a way that Come Out acts
as a reliquary for pain and an attempt to offer it as recompense for what is
lost. That it can only fail makes the offer more moving.

The point to be drawn from all of these possible interpretations is that

they can all be heard in the piece; and it seems to me not only impossible but
also completely undesirable to choose among them. As I write this essay, the
city of Los Angeles faces a massive scandal involving the Ramparts division
of the LAPD, where perjury and violence toward innocent people has made
a mockery of justice. It is crucial to remember how various and complicated
the issues surrounding the scandal are, however, even as we begin to try to
measure the kinds of damage inflicted. Reich’s piece, in all its ambivalent
tensions, seems to embody just such crucial issues in a pattern of continuing
beauty, pain, and relevance.

Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails, “Reptile”
If thou were to see in liknesse of fleisch and blood that blessed sacrament, thou
schuldest lothen and abhorren it to resseyve it into thy mouth.
john wycliffe, Elucidarium

In 1994, Trent Reznor, the author of the group Nine Inch Nails, released The
Downward Spiral, a remarkably grim work that nevertheless achieved notable
critical and commercial success; the song “Reptile” appears as track 12. Even
for an album permeated by revolting verbal and musical metaphors as well
as horrific violence, this song retains a striking ability to disgust. The open-
ing verse, for instance, combines repellent imagery that evokes contami-
nation, hybridity, decay, and putrescence, all in the service of vicious misog-
yny directed toward an ex-lover:

she spreads herself wide open to let the insects in

she leaves a trail of honey to show me where she’s been
she had the blood of reptile just underneath her skin
seeds from a thousand others drip down from within

These lyrics are framed musically by an instrumental introduction composed

of sounds of unspecified assembly-line equipment overlaid with slightly
irregular chains of pizzicato string patterns (mostly a chain of alternating
major seconds and perfect fourths); when this introduction gives way, it is to
musical virtues 65

an extremely harsh ambience in which a strong percussion battery estab-

lishes a dialogue with a distinctive sound like a piston/carriage return, over
a rumbling, obscure bass Dn. (Significantly, the piston noise retains a slightly
vocal quality because of its relatively high pitch content as well as its charac-
teristic glissando.) After a vamp of eight bars, Reznor’s vocal line enters. In
the context of the song’s lyrics that piston sound, in particular, acquires an
especially distasteful resonance: listeners familiar with virtually any of
Reznor’s music videos will find it difficult not to think of the characteristic
and wholly nauseating spectacle of animal parts (specifically, carrion)
attached to machinery. Other sounds later in the song that combine
mechanical and vocal qualities reinforce this notion. That is, taken as a
whole the song sounds at once obscenely mechanical and obscenely fleshly.
This complex combination of dark affects, however, exists in an odd tension
with several exquisite musical gestures, notably a lyrical whole-tone ascent
from Dn to Af during a brief quiet interlude about three-quarters of the way
through the track.
The extreme difficulty for listeners established by Reznor’s tropes of the
disgusting is the point of the entire song, not to mention the entire album.
Any ethical inquiry into the nature and aims of a song like this must consider
what is meant by the representation of things that, were they to appear in an
actual human situation, many of us might agree to characterize as depraved
or at least insalubrious. One way of addressing this is the Aristotelian notion
of catharsis: we argue that the hatred and disgust presented in the song acts
to purge listeners of those same feelings in a kind of homeopathic cure. A
more resonant answer, however, might be found in the interpretive contexts
out of which Reznor’s composition grows.
Soon after the album’s release Reznor described his goals in construct-
ing the whole in terms that self-consciously open a space for considerations
of ethics and music: “the big overview was of somebody who systematically
throws away every aspect of his life and what’s around him—from personal
relationships to religion, this person is giving up to a certain degree but also
finding some peace by getting rid of things that were bogging him down.
The record also looks at certain vices as being ways of trying to dull the pain
of what this person is hiding.”18 In other words, the album documents an
ambivalent asceticism so exigent that even the grounds upon which self-
denial is built must themselves be sacrificed. This sacrifice marks a kenosis
so extreme that good must be emptied out along with evil in an attempt to
reach some transcendent term. Listeners unfamiliar with Reznor’s work
may not expect to find such a potentially religious framework behind an
album containing such horrific verbal and musical imagery, but this com-
bination is absolutely normal in terms of the traditions with which Reznor
is engaged.
Reznor’s musical poetics derive most strongly from the specialized pop
66 mitchell morris

genre of Industrial music. Growing out of various rock avant-gardes in the

later 1970s, and particularly developed in the work of experimental groups
such as Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, Industrial found its most
prominent exponents in ’80s groups such as Ministry, Skinny Puppy, or Ein-
stürzende Neubauten. Most Industrial music depends upon a fusion of vari-
ous dance styles, notably disco and New Wave dance techno-pop, with noise
and found sonic materials such as machinery sounds, all of which are con-
sidered especially appropriate to post-industrial cultural products. For all its
emphasis on technology, however, Industrial music is anything but giddily
technophile. Instead, the music in its settings and lyrics pays enormous
amounts of attention to categories of the obscene and the abject, and it may
be important to the resonance with youth cultures in the 1980s and 1990s
that the Industrial genre seemed to offer an aesthetic shape to house many
of the adolescent sentiments that developed in the strikingly punitive, child-
hating culture of late twentieth-century America.19
The poetics underlying Industrial music certainly can be traced back to
late Romanticism in its most gothic manifestations. Particularly with respect
to French literature, a line running from Nerval and Baudelaire through
Rimbaud and Lautréamont, and into the twentieth century with the revival
of interest in Sade seen among writers such as Georges Bataille, makes per-
fect sense of Industrial’s thematics of obscenity and damnation as holy activ-
ities.20 Another line of historical tradition might be seen as coming from the
poetics of German Expressionism. In both cases, the notion of violation as a
form of the sublime seems central to understanding the projects as a whole.21
It should follow, then, that underlying Reznor’s work is the attempt to reach
an Absolute through the darkest of paths. What this means for listening is
complex, but it seems to require that when we listen to “Reptile,” we hear it
to some extent as the record of a left-hand askesis. St. Catherine of Siena
drank pus: is The Downward Spiral so far away from her?

It is also true, lectio virum arguit: the examples I have chosen to discuss clearly
bespeak a particular set of moral interests and encourage reflection on var-
ious sets of virtues. These do not reduce to the overly simple kinds of fables
compiled by would-be Aesops such as William Bennett, because there are
multiple sets of potential virtues (and vices) in each piece I have offered up.
Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that I have
favored minor-mode affects and dispositions in my interpretations. In
Brahms’s Intermezzo, I tend to hear musical evocations of qualities such as
modesty and restraint, I contemplate the connection of these qualities to
feelings of reduced expectation and belatedness, and I remain impressed
musical virtues 67

that so much beauty can be wrung out of sadness. Reich’s Come Out also
works nearby with grief and violence, but in my hearing its interpretive tra-
jectory moves toward a more abstract intersubjectivity rather than the con-
struction of individualized, exemplary interiority. With Reznor’s song “Rep-
tile,” the hatred of self and other that drives the disgust at the heart of the
ascetic process offers, among other things, a location in which I note how the
difference between virtue and vice becomes a little harder to see.
In each case, my account is extremely partial, and were discussion to stop
there, the possibility of listening to and for virtue and vice would be stymied.
MacIntyre observes that it is only within the context of human relationships
that we can speak of morality; abstract principles of universal application
make a poor place from which to view the moral life precisely because they
are insufficiently attentive to the contingencies that make up human condi-
tions. I have suggested that structural listening is subject to similar criticisms.
If music—writing it, playing it, listening to it, talking about it—is to recover
its capacity to be recognized as a kind of moral activity with an important role
in shaping our understandings of what is good, then we must be able to speak
with one another about just those qualities, contentious, partial, and difficult
of definition, which are at present the ground of our disagreements. If we lis-
ten to the virtues of our music, perhaps we can listen to the virtues of the
music and speech of others. In some sense, music becomes like our Torah:
we are not required to complete the work; neither are we allowed to aban-
don it.

1. Subotnik 1996, 150. See the introduction to this volume for further discussion
of Subotnik’s characterization of “structural listening”.
2. The term is of course Richard Taruskin’s. See the discussions in Taruskin 1997.
3. This supplementation can also lead to power relations that are (perhaps by
accident) morally suspect. Consider, for instance, the pedagogical problems posed
by I. A. Richards’s notorious New Critical primer Practical Criticism (1964). Assuming
that his task is to promulgate a quasi-Kantian view of poems, Richards in fact sys-
tematically withholds crucial contextual information from his test subjects, then
mean-spiritedly chides them for not being able to deduce the information from the
poems themselves. By a sleight of hand, the critic’s authority is thus placed beyond
question, hence beyond dialogue.
4. On this point see Williams 1993.
5. MacIntyre 1984, 122. The following summary depends on MacIntyre 1984,
chapters 10–13.
6. There is an interestingly ironic resonance between MacIntyre’s Aquinas and
Adorno’s Beethoven with respect to their crucial but poignantly brief synthesis of
moral worlds.
68 mitchell morris

7. On this point see McMylor 1994, 151–53.

8. MacIntyre 1984, 209. See also in support of this the discussion in McMylor
1994, 153–60.
9. On these points see especially MacIntyre 1984, chapters 18 (“The Rationality
of Traditions,” 349–69) and 19 (“Tradition and Translation,” 370–88).
10. Cf. MacIntyre: “Such inquiry does not begin from Cartesian first principles,
but from some contingent historical starting point, some occasion that astonishes suf-
ficiently to raise questions, to elicit rival answers and hence, to lead on to contend-
ing argument. Such arguments, when developed systematically through time,
become a salient feature of the social relationships they inform and to which they give
expression” (MacIntyre 1994, 147).
11. At times it seems as if this mistake is near universal. It may be that our pre-
disposition as human beings to imagine music’s power as manifesting through con-
tagion says important things about how we listen; but it is death to listening as bound
up with moral discourse. For a recent critique of this problematic, see Goehr 1999.
12. Sedgwick 1990 seems to me to be one of the best models for the kind of eth-
ical and aesthetic engagement I have in mind. And some recent work on gay and les-
bian studies in musicology, of course, suggests that Sedgwick’s model resonates more
strongly with musical preoccupations than may seem intuitively obvious. See, among
others, Morris 1992, Brett 1994, and Cusick 1994.
13. Though to cite one protest: “it is ironic . . . that [Brahms’s] compositional
method has so often inspired a formalistic critical reaction—one celebrating archi-
tecture rather than process” (Rink 1999, 80).
14. Usefully nuanced discussions of Brahms’s citational habits include Hull 1989
and Knapp 1997 and forthcoming.
15. Certainly this rhetoric of condemnation attaches to any number of com-
posers, particularly those whose music depends upon effects that summon emotional
states of sentimentality, vicariousness, obliquity, and extended irony: all of these
terms entail complicated forms of listener relations, which achieve their greatest
potency through their aptness to move even more easily toward ill than toward good.
But it is exactly this rhetorical and ethical charge that can be gained no other way.
On these issues, see Morris 1995 and 1999.
16. David Epstein (1979, 175) notes the weakness of the tonic as a formal prop-
erty. In general, as he notes elsewhere (1990, 198–99), the paucity of structural down-
beats can be understood as a general feature of Brahms’s music, and specifically con-
nects the weak cadences of this Intermezzo with its air of melancholy.
17. The central examples are Nyman 1999, 155–57 and Strickland 1993, 189–92.
18. Alan di Perna, “Machine Head,” Guitar World (April 1994); transcribed by
Mile Katzenborg in Painful Convictions: words and so much skin [Online]. Available: [2000, February 10].
19. Moreover, it is possible to suggest that one of the most vital strands of popu-
lar music during the ’80s and ’90s develops its most characteristic stances from a cru-
cial cluster of notions associating abjection, marginal positions with respect to gen-
der and sexuality, and youth. Industrial music thus joins British techno-pop (notably
the Pet Shop Boys), less classifiable groups such as the Smiths and R. E. M., and some
post-Punk in defining the kinds of abject identities stylized in films such as The River’s
Edge or Heathers, not to mention fantasies like The Lost Boys or The Basketball Diaries.
musical virtues 69

20. Of particular importance here is Rimbaud’s concern with the artist as voyant,
plainly including all that term’s religious connotations. Also resonant are works such
as Bataille 1986. And Mario Praz’s classic work, The Romantic Agony (1970), could be
considered a basic guide to this tradition.
21. I have examined some aspects of the nineteenth-century sublime in Morris
1998. An especially interesting discussion of the affect of disgust is found in Miller
1997. A set of concerns closely related to the French and German traditions men-
tioned informs the work of writers such as Kathy Acker, J. G. Ballard, or Dennis
Cooper, all of whom have been cited in the contexts of Industrial music. And to
return to grotesqueries such as the marriage of corpses and machines, this kind of
fusion is a widespread thematic interest in much Industrial culture, and may be
thought of as another way of approaching the kinds of issues discussed in academic
contexts under the rubric of the Post-Human or the Cyborg.

The Chosen One’s Choice

tamara levitz

In her critique of what she calls structural listening, Rose Subotnik departs
from the premise that music can be defined in terms of a binary opposition
between rational, abstract structures and sound or style, which in her account
includes aspects of music as diverse as medium, history, and corporeality.1
She argues that structural listeners have focused too adamantly on the struc-
turalist pole of this key binarism, thereby neglecting crucial aspects of musi-
cal experience. With the expression “structural listeners” she is referring in
particular to Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Theodor Adorno,
whose extensive theoretical writings she does not aim to analyze in detail
(especially in terms of contradictions, modifications over time, and
nuances), but rather to summarize conceptually, explicating them in terms
of broad common denominators. This focus leads her to define Schoen-
berg’s and Adorno’s differentiated approaches to listening “for present pur-
poses” “as one,” and to summarize Adorno’s contribution as that of
“locat[ing] musical value wholly within some formal sort of parameter, to
which it is the listener’s business to attend,” even though one of his central
Marxist arguments concerned the immanent historicity of musical material
(Subotnik 1996, 150 and 152–53). Her discussion of Stravinsky is similarly
focused: rather than investigate the practical considerations involved in
Stravinsky’s work as a ballet and theater composer, she defines his approach
to listening on the basis of his ghostwritten Poetics of Music of 1936, conclud-
ing that Stravinsky “celebrated the activity of musical construction and
would confine musical meaning within the boundaries of the individual com-
position, exclusive of contextual relationships and (at least in theory) of
intent” (152–53). Thus distilled to their essence, the principles of structural
listening can function ideally as one pole of Subotnik’s primary conceptual
binarism of form versus content/style.
the chosen one ’ s choice 71

In my essay, I suggest an approach to listening in which structure is not

opposed to history, meaning, or style, as Subotnik proposes, but rather itself
understood as immanently historically meaningful. In other words, I reject
Subotnik’s notion that one must choose between binary opposites, and pro-
pose instead mediation between the two. I realize this shift by considering
structural elements as gestures, which do not represent meanings within
abstracted two-dimensional spatial graphs, or communicate them through
association or reasoning by analogy, but rather constitute part of the mean-
ing of the original work as a performance event.2 Eduard Hanslick (1982,
74) interpreted musical form in such visual terms in his discussion of music
as arabesque—an analogy that enabled him to think of structure in other
than abstracted architectural or mathematical, measuring terms. As a living
line that weaved itself into a visual arabesque, structure was immanently visu-
ally expressive. My model of musical structure builds on this idea, yet departs
from Hanslick through its use of the notion of gesture, which unlike the
arabesque is associated with communication of meaning and the construc-
tion of subjectivity. I emphasize this aspect in my essay by linking structure
to gesture through the actions of the human body.
I have chosen as the subject of my study one of the first twentieth-century
ballets whose musical structure critics understood as immanently gestural,
Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps.3 The premiere of this modern-day
Gesamtkunstwerk on 29 May 1913 offers a particularly fruitful point of depar-
ture for a study of musical structure as gesture, especially because of the role
played therein by the choreography of Stravinsky’s collaborator, Vaslav Nijin-
sky. Inspired by Jaques-Dalcroze’s plastique animée, Nijinsky revolutionized
dance by realizing every detail of Stravinsky’s musical structure as a gesture
or physical movement in space. Nevertheless, musicologists and theorists
have continued to ignore his contribution to Le Sacre, largely because they
consider his gestures to be ontologically distinct from Stravinsky’s music, and
therefore of secondary importance to any study of the latter. I overcome this
distinction by considering Le Sacre not as a musical object, but rather as a his-
torical event that took place within a performative context in which musical
meaning was constituted in part through the visual impact of dance. Invit-
ing the dancing body back into music allows me to broaden Subotnik’s defi-
nition of vision, which she associates solely with reading the score. In con-
trast, “vision” in my text includes the experience of watching music realized
spatially through dance, and of perceiving the meanings communicated by
gesturing dancing bodies.4

I study Le Sacre from the perspective of musical gesture and dance not only
as a means of overcoming Subotnik’s dualistic approach, but also because I
feel that the neglect of this aspect of the work has led to misinterpretations
72 tamara levitz

of its meaning. Operating within the same dualistic parameters as Subotnik,

well-known interpreters of Le Sacre like Theodor Adorno, Pierre Boulez,
Allen Forte, Pieter van den Toorn, and to a far lesser extent Richard
Taruskin, have characteristically confined its musical meaning to the score,
relegating the choreography and even staging to the realm of the “extra-
musical.” Their approaches, which Subotnik might call structural, become
problematic only when they use their analytical insights about the music to
attribute to Le Sacre moral qualities, values, or historical meanings. By cri-
tiquing them, I am not rejecting analysis of a certain structural kind, but
rather simply suggesting that it may have limited value in speaking about
historical performance events of music and dance, and that it thus may
not be the best means to the end of conducting an ideological critique of
In the first part of my essay, I respond to Subotnik’s call for a closer exam-
ination of the premises of structural listening by critiquing the two authors
who have provided the best-known and most influential examples of ideo-
logical or philosophical critiques of Le Sacre based on musical analysis:
Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno and Richard Taruskin. I question in particu-
lar how these authors define human subjectivity based on immanent musi-
cal form, and how they use their conclusions to determine the humane value
of Le Sacre. In disputing their work, I support some of Subotnik’s main argu-
ments against structural listening, and provide them with differentiation and
further support in the form of close readings of specific texts.
In the second part of my essay, I counter Adorno’s and Taruskin’s struc-
turalist analyses of Le Sacre by offering an alternative reading that recognizes
the importance of bodily gesture in danced works of music. I focus on the
figure of the Chosen One, the young virgin whose sacrifice to the Sun God
Yarilo is portrayed at the end of the work. Although both Adorno and
Taruskin recognize the Chosen One’s ability to choose as central to under-
standing the morality of Le Sacre, they examine neither the person who cre-
ated her choreography (Nijinsky) nor the gestures of her “Danse sacrale.” By
interpreting this dance, I am able to argue that the Chosen One may not
have been a passive victim who succumbed to her community without con-
flict, as Adorno and Taruskin claim, but rather a subject who experienced
deep animosity toward her peers. Viewed in this manner, the “Danse sacrale”
becomes less an essay in inhumane musical form than a physical expression
of a critical spirit of opposition. Moral values cease to be fixed in structure,
as Adorno and Taruskin want them to be, and become determined by his-
torical context and the changing events of performance. I explain the soci-
ological and cultural reasons for our long denial of the Chosen One’s bod-
ies, and give a plausible reason why I think her presence could enrich our
understanding of Stravinsky’s musical work.
the chosen one ’ s choice 73

the chosen one’s lack of choice:

theodor adorno and richard taruskin
Immanent Musical Analysis
Theodor Adorno and Richard Taruskin base their arguments about the
humanity of Le Sacre and the role of the Chosen One on the fundamental
premise that the cultural meaning of music is revealed in the musical mate-
rial itself. In his Philosophie der neuen Musik of 1949, Adorno argued that
musical material was in itself “sedimented spirit—something preformed that
was social and had gone through people’s consciousness.”5 As is well known,
he placed the key to musical progress in the hands of the composer—the
only subject who had resisted the standardizing impact of technological civ-
ilization and who could thus reflect the most contemporary states of con-
sciousness in his compositional material.6 Adorno’s composer did not
express ideas about society or his own subjectivity in his music, but rather
forgot himself in the process of obeying the musical material’s progress,
thereby allowing subjectivity to regain a universality that went beyond him-
self.7 The resulting artworks “record [ed] the history of mankind more accu-
rately than documents [did],” and thus became “forms of knowledge”
(“Gestalten der Erkenntnis”); the truth they contained was immanently his-
torical, reflecting the most recent developments in human society (Adorno
1978, 47).
Much twentieth-century music criticism revolved around Adorno’s choice
of Schoenberg’s atonal music as a positive model of how a critical and con-
scious music could reflect the objectified subject. Adorno praised Schoen-
berg for having rejected the lost collective subjectivity of tonality, and for
having remained truthful to history and the historical subject by creating
structures in which an autonomous or alienated subject took control of the
musical material through thematic or motivic development, or “developing
variation.”8 Such organic development of a central idea enabled the music
to move forward in time, thus achieving transcendence.9 Yet Schoenberg
had also used dissonance and musical shocks that disrupted the necessary
organic unity of the composition, thereby questioning the very possibility of
a healthy oneness between the subject and society. The thus revealed alien-
ation of modern society revealed the most recent stage of social and human
development and constituted “the content of the art work itself” (Adorno
1978, 126).
By identifying objective human subjectivity with organic, motivic, teleo-
logical musical processes, Adorno abstracted it from the body, imbuing it
instead with a deeply deceiving metaphorical corporeality. This practice
allowed him to find objective subjectivity in absolute music, while denying
its presence in danced works of music—a philosophical stance that had dev-
74 tamara levitz

astating consequences for his analysis of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre and for the
twentieth-century practice of ideologically critiquing music.
As is well known, Adorno countered the positive example of Schoenberg
with the negative model of Stravinsky. As Schoenberg’s dialectical opposite,
Adorno’s Stravinsky necessarily rejected organic musical development. In
works like Le Sacre, he renounced any attempt to “redeem or fulfill that which
had appeared in the immanent dynamic of the musical material as an expec-
tation or demand” (Adorno 1978, 138, note), and reduced his melodies to
“rudimentary successions of notes” or “cut off, primitivist patterns” that did
not develop and thus lacked the unfolding of a subjective being (139 and
note). Diatonic, folkloristic, and chromatic melodic particles bled together,
as if they had been randomly inserted, creating a contradiction between the
“restrained horizontal” and the “daring vertical” that resulted in chords
becoming coloristic rather than constructive (140). In many spots, pedal
points replaced “genuine” harmonic unfolding and harmonic development.
Yet Le Sacre most egregiously rejected the subject by ignoring “the dialectical
confrontation with the musical course of time . . . which has constituted the
essence of all great music since Bach” (171).10
Adorno’s perspective on musical subjectivity had little influence in North
America until Subotnik’s courageous critiques of the 1980s. They resurfaced
indirectly in Richard Taruskin’s work, however, especially as he attempted to
reintegrate ideological critique into the traditional discourse of music theory
throughout the 1990s.11 Chastising North American theorists for blindly
embracing music’s aesthetic autonomy, Taruskin campaigned for new inter-
pretive approaches that would take into account social, historical, and politi-
cal context. By asserting that what he called Stravinsky’s “fascism and anti-Semi-
tism” were an immanent aspect of his musical compositions, he hoped to
prove false the claim of his opponents that political attitudes and social cir-
cumstances existed parallel to, yet independent of, the music.12 In so doing, he
hoped to give Le Sacre back its history and to demand for it a moral reckoning.
Although Taruskin distanced himself from North American practices of
music theory, his interpretation of Le Sacre remained firmly grounded in a
“structural” theoretical approach. Frustrated by what he called the North
American obsession with composers’ lives, experiences, and intentions, and
by the “poietic fallacy,” the popular belief that the meaning of music was
exhausted in the story of its making, Taruskin based his work on what he
called “immanent criticism,” the study of musical structures as embodiments
of their maker’s political and social allegiances.13 Such analysis departed
from the premise that the “artistic qualities of the music, however narrowly
they may be defined or evaluated, are decisively—indeed internally —con-
nected with its conceptual metaphors” (Taruskin 1997, 461). Taruskin’s
“immanent criticism” of the music revealed a surprising intellectual turn: in
the chosen one ’ s choice 75

his attempt to escape theoretical abstraction, he returned to the conceptual

practices of the father of immanent criticism, Theodor Adorno. Unlike
North American music theorists, Adorno had never denied the moral and
social value of art or the historicity of the musical material. And like Taruskin,
he had attempted to prevent the return of fascist thought by exploring “the
cultural roots of some of the most terrifying anti-cultural phenomena of our
time” (Adorno 1986, 416), and by examining musical structure as a key to
revealing false consciousness or ideology.14 Perhaps for these reasons,
Taruskin interpreted Le Sacre in a manner that echoed Adorno’s conclusions
in Die Philosophie der neuen Musik.15 His writings displayed an affinity not only
for Adorno’s criteria of structural listening, but also for his moral and criti-
cal stance.
Taruskin’s immanent criticism of Le Sacre is based on a notion of musical
subjectivity that on the surface resembles that of Adorno. For example,
Taruskin also thinks that such subjectivity is realized only as music organi-
cally develops through time. He comments that “ego identification with
musical process” depends on “functionally directed harmony”; and that the
“autonomy of ‘das Individuum’ ” is mirrored and protected in the “structural
complexity and profusion of highly differentiated detail” of “panro-
manogermanic” music with its tonal harmonic function (and its ability to
represent desire, and hence subjectivity).16 These premises lead Taruskin to
conclude that the ego is transcended in works that meander around sym-
metrical chord structures, and dissolved in works like Le Sacre that show no
continuous development.17 Like Adorno, he believes that dynamic form is
replaced in Le Sacre with “extension through repetition, alternation, and—
above all—sheer inertial accumulation” (Taruskin 1996, 1:954). The “static,
vamping harmonies,” “ego-annihilating ostinatos,” and “long stretches of
arrested root motion and pulsing rhythm” indicate the “annihilation of the
subject and the denial of psychology” (Taruskin 1995, 18–19). The work’s
“highly individualized static blocks in striking juxtapositions” (1996, 1:954)
likewise create an infamous discontinuity that can be associated with “the
absence of recall and forecast” or “the absence of memory” that character-
izes the subhuman or animal kingdom” (1995, 18–20).

Adorno’s and Taruskin’s Chosen One

Both Adorno and Taruskin define musical subjectivity as constructed
through developmental musical processes. Consequently, both can define
Stravinsky’s Le Sacre as lacking subjectivity, based on the analytical fact that
its score contains no such processes. Significantly, however, they do not limit
their analyses to the score alone. Rather, they strengthen their arguments
about Le Sacre’s lack of subjectivity by appealing to the ballet’s synopsis, and,
76 tamara levitz

more specifically, to the story of the Chosen One. She remains the most dis-
turbing figure for both of them, and so it is to her that I now turn.
The cultural image of the Chosen One as a helpless victim without indi-
viduality, corporeality, or choice is so persistent in the secondary literature,
that one is compelled to ask where it came from. The best source seems to
be Stravinsky himself, who described how he understood the Chosen One in
a revealing dream that he claimed inspired Le Sacre and that is quoted rev-
erently in all accounts of its history: “One day, when I was finishing the last
pages of L’Oiseau de feu in St. Petersburg, I had a fleeting vision which came
to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other
things. I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a cir-
cle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to
propitiate spring.”18 Stravinsky made sure everybody knew that the ballet was
about this sacrifice of a chosen victim by originally calling his work Velikaya
zhertva [The Great Victim].19 His envisioned choreography suggested that
the Chosen One would not show any resistance to her fate: he planned “a
series of rhythmic mass movements of the greatest simplicity which would
have an instantaneous effect on the audience, with no superfluous details or
complications such as would suggest effort.”20
Taruskin often lamented the fact that so many scholars gave Stravinsky’s
comments ultimate authority in defining the meaning of his works. Given
Taruskin’s worries, it is surprising that both he and Adorno chose to adopt
wholesale Stravinsky’s vision of the Chosen One, without considering or
comparing it to Roerich’s or Nijinsky’s interpretations of that role. They both
defined the Chosen One, to a certain extent with Stravinsky, as lacking indi-
vidual choice, dancing vacuously, and ready to sacrifice herself without the
slightest hint of conflict with her community.
Adorno understood the Chosen One’s death, like Petruschka’s, as an
“antihumanistic sacrifice to the collectivity: a sacrifice without tragedy,
offered not to the image that was gradually arising of mankind, but rather
the blind confirmation of a condition that was recognized by the sacrificed
one herself, whether through self-ridicule or through self-effacement”
(Adorno 1978, 135–36). Solely on the basis of the synopsis of the ballet,
Adorno assumed that the Chosen One agreed to the collective will imposed
on her without showing resistance, opposition, subjective will, or tragic
incongruity. He concluded that “there is no aesthetic antithesis between the
sacrificed one and her tribe, rather, her dance carries out the unopposed,
direct identification with the latter. The subject exposes as little conflict as
the musical structure delivers” (147). Even the musical shocks in Le Sacre,
which Adorno understood as essential to avant-garde music (because of the
way in which they made the individual aware of his “futility against the gigan-
tic machine of the whole system”; 144), have been reduced to mere effects,
and thus create no sense of antagonism or conflict: “In Stravinsky there is
the chosen one ’ s choice 77

neither a readiness for fear nor an opposing ego; rather, it is accepted that
the shocks cannot be adopted by the musical subject, which gives up trying
to maintain itself and thus remains content with participating in the thrusts
(shocks) as reflexes” (145).
Adorno’s interpretation of the Chosen One was shaped by his under-
standing of dance, which he defined as “the static art of time, of turning itself
in circles, of movement without progress” (179). In his opinion, the music
of Le Sacre allowed only purely physical, almost ecstatic movement, separated
from emotional and intellectual thought:
[The body] is treated by the music as a means, as a thing that reacts exactly to
it; it obliges the body to perform at its maximum, as is drastically displayed on
stage in the “Jeu de Rapt” and the “Jeux de Cités Rivales.” The severity of Le
Sacre, which makes itself as insensitive to any stirring of subjectivity as the rit-
ual does to the pain of its initiates and sacrificial victims, is at the same time the
supreme command that forbids the body from expressing pain by permanently
threatening it, and which trains it to do the impossible as in the ballet, which
is the most important traditional element of Stravinsky’s work. Such severity
and ritual driving out of the soul contributes to the impression that Le Sacre as
a product has not been subjectively brought forth and is not reflective of
human beings. Rather it exists as a thing in and of itself. (Adorno 1978, 159)

Adorno concluded that the subject had been alienated from bodily sensation
in Le Sacre, resulting in a ballet that centered on a dancing body foreign to
itself (161). Haunted by the fear of communal and round dancing that dom-
inated in Germany in the post-Nazi years, Adorno condemned the Chosen
One’s dance as primitive, and based on a notion of collectivity that denied
the individual subject:
The Chosen One dances herself to death, in the same manner as anthropolo-
gists report that savages who have unknowingly broken a taboo actually die
thereafter. Nothing of her as an individual being is reflected in her dance than
the unconscious and coincidental reflex of pain: according to its inner orga-
nization, her solo dance is, like all others, a collective dance. It is a round dance
void of any dialectic of the general and the particular. Authenticity is obtained
through the denial of a subjective pole. This occupation of the collective stand-
point in the manner of a surprise attack causes the following to occur: at the
moment when an agreeable conformity to an individualistic society is dis-
missed, a conformity of a secondary and indeed highly disagreeable kind,
namely with a blind integral society, the same as one of castrated or headless
people, takes its place. (Adorno 1978, 147)

Stravinsky’s music showed little concern either for its own fate or for that of
the Chosen One: “The abomination is watched with some pleasure, and
shown not in a transfigured, but rather unalleviated fashion” (136). The sub-
ject ceased to exist musically: “The choreographic idea of the sacrifice
78 tamara levitz

shapes the musical treatment of the subject itself. In the music, and not on
the stage, everything is eradicated that distinguishes itself as individuated
from the collective” (145). The composition of Le Sacre thus equals a “dele-
tion of the self, unconscious skillfulness, fitting in to the blind totality”
(156).21 Dance “from the start forces the composition into a subservient posi-
tion and into renouncing its autonomy,” turning Le Sacre into a “parasite”
This is a remarkable conclusion from someone who had probably never
seen Nijinsky’s original choreography of Le Sacre, and gave no indication of
having studied or seen any of the subsequent choreographies of the work
either.23 With striking confidence Adorno defined as objective truth the
visual fantasy he had dreamed up.24 Having never examined in any detail the
dynamics of the dancing body, he was probably not entirely aware that he
had reduced the Chosen One to a mechanized, abstract vision of human
corporeality.25 In his world, the body lacked the concrete presence of the
musical score he so cherished; it was an abstract idea without physicality and
subjectivity, whose movements necessarily remained meaningless.
Like Adorno before him, Taruskin defined Le Sacre’s politics on the basis
of the fact that “the ‘petty I’ [was given up] in the interests of . . . the absorp-
tion of the individual consciousness in the collective” (Taruskin 1995, 17).
His Chosen One became the individual (or non-individual) who had to sub-
jugate herself to the masses or collective subjectivity (das Volk) for the fascist
politics of Le Sacre to work. By adopting a subjectivity of the masses, or col-
lective ego, she allowed herself to be controlled from the outside by a leader
or Führer, who Taruskin hinted was Stravinsky or the conductor. Stravinsky
just has to put pen to manuscript paper in order to transform sensible
human beings into jerking, kicking automata.
Rather than explore the philosophical consequences of an imagined
dancing Chosen One, as Adorno did, Taruskin supported his claims about
her lack of choice by returning to immanent musical meaning. His study of
the score led him to conclude that Stravinsky, and not some false collectiv-
ity, had killed the Chosen One. The “terrible dynamism” of his “crashing
orchestra” in the “Danse sacrale” embodied the “opaque, constraining”
force of society, which inhumanely killed her, and coerced the audience into
sharing its point of view (Taruskin 1995, 20). Stravinsky had organized his
“cells” or “motivic tesserae” in her dance to heighten the antihuman effect
of “hypostatization—[or] extreme fixity of musical ‘objects’,” that repre-
sented the Chosen One’s lack of subjectivity (Taruskin 1996, 1:962–64). By
including a facsimile sketch for the music of this scene, he offered visual
proof for the authority of his interpretation. The reproduction emphasized
the physical presence and thus historical truth of the document. Taruskin
invited the reader to notice the age of the paper, the personal feel of the writ-
ing, and the impatience of Stravinsky’s scrawl, which could easily convince
the chosen one ’ s choice 79

him or her that the Chosen One’s death had resulted from an arbitrary and
somehow viciously unsympathetic compositional game on Stravinsky’s part.
Although dance is hardly central to Taruskin’s analysis, he does refer to it
when arguing about the Chosen One’s lack of choice and conflict. Instead of
analyzing existing choreographies of the work, however, he followed Adorno
in describing the Chosen One as dancing an ecstatic “whirling dance”
(Taruskin 1996, 1:886–87), inspired by a music that elicits “a primitive, kines-
thetic response.”26 He supported his argument by referring to anthropolog-
ical research on the whirling dances in Slavic ritual, which interested
Roerich and Stravinsky, and which he could associate with Le Sacre, in spite
of the fact that it was not danced that way.27 Taruskin found the ritualistic
dance he uncovered foreign to his sensibilities, and viewed its emotional
ecstasy, primitivism, and lack of rationality with suspicion.28 He lamented
that the choreography envisioned for the Chosen One was “devoid of plot
in the conventional sense,” and that it was a ritual with primitive immediacy,
rather than a represented narrative (1996, 1:865). In Adorno’s spirit he con-
cluded that “the maiden herself does not perform a culminating dance [at
all]; rather, one is done around her—in the presence of the Elders, as all ver-
sions of the Rite scenario specify” (1996, 1:886).
The image of a spinning female body was useful to Adorno and Taruskin,
because it allowed them to understand the Chosen One as lacking subjective
choice and corporeality. Their vision, so contrary to most actual danced ver-
sions of Le Sacre, says much more about them than about her. Like many oth-
ers before and after them, they have donned the bearskins and joined the
elders, to sit in the circle with Stravinsky and watch the Chosen One dance
herself to death. Using the authority of structural listening and the brilliant
wit of their lucid pens, they erase the Chosen One’s individuality from the Le
Sacre with dashing final strokes. She is not a subject, but rather a twirling
image, a silent victim, an empty canvas, a wispy curl of smoke, a spinning
arabesque, thin air.
In spite of their shared ideas about spinning female bodies, Adorno and
Taruskin came to different conclusions about Stravinsky’s Le Sacre. Adorno
accused Stravinsky of having tried to achieve an authenticity that was no
longer possible in his time. He glorified the negation of the individual sub-
ject, thereby neglecting the critical role of art and betraying his mission as
an avant-garde artist. His regressive music entertained, lulled, and mollified
its audiences, preventing them from developing their critical potential. Yet
what was most pitiful was that Stravinsky had pretended that this “retrogres-
sion of musical language and of the state of consciousness appropriate to it
was up to date” (Adorno 1978, 137).
In contrast to Adorno, Taruskin is neither a Marxist nor a historical mate-
rialist, and has no allegiance to either the Hegelian objective spirit or
Geschichtsphilosophie. Instead of backing up his claims about Le Sacre with a
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theory of musical material as Adorno does, he turned for evidence to Stravin-

sky’s sketchbooks and to comments from established composers like Elliot
Carter—a methodology that revealed his indebtedness not to European crit-
ical thought, but rather to North American music theory. He likewise linked
stylistic features in Stravinsky’s music to social and political meanings not
through a Marxist theory of musical material, but rather by associating them
with the cultural and philosophical concepts surrounding them, that is, with
the words written about them. Thus Le Sacre became for Taruskin a deliber-
ate exercise in what Alexander Blok described around the turn of the century
as stikhiya, or “primitive immediacy” as opposed to the kul’tura associated
with European intellectuals.29 Taruskin’s reader is led to believe that Stravin-
sky consciously promoted features of Russian neo-nationalist art as they were
discussed by Blok and others. In that Blok’s theories were associated in his
time with neo-nationalist politics in Russia, and in that the opposition
between kul’tura and stikhiya resembles the German debates on Kultur and
Zivilisation that preceded the rise of fascism, Taruskin could assume that the
“primitive immediacy” of Le Sacre was proto-fascist. He argued that Stravin-
sky was not the victim of false consciousness, but rather an artist who believed
in antihumanism and fascism, and expressed it through his art, afterwards
hiding what he had done. By allowing his knowledge of political systems to
determine how he analyzed Stravinsky’s work, Taruskin went against
Adorno’s philosophical principles. His critique of “structural listening” from
the viewpoint of a structural listener shifted attention from scores to cultural
context, yet retained a structural interpretation of the Chosen One.

the chosen one’s choice

Le Sacre as Art plastique
Adorno and Taruskin situate social meaning, subjectivity, and bodily move-
ment within the music itself. Their fictional Chosen One is thereby arbitrar-
ily detached from her body and denied her place in an extremely illustrious,
long tradition of dance that includes the most significant dancers and cho-
reographers of this century, from Nijinsky through Massine and Pina Bausch
to Martha Graham.30 All these leading dancers were attracted to the role of
the Chosen One, whom they treated as a vehicle for their most intense per-
sonal expressions. They did not think she was a spinning rag doll, and they
rarely interpreted her as having no choice. Their powerful dancing bodies
gave her an individuality Stravinsky could deny her. The Chosen One’s
potential for choice was nowhere more evident than in the choreography of
the man who invented her and gave her physical life, and who participated
with Stravinsky in establishing her individuality during the very genesis of the
work: Vaslav Nijinsky.
The tradition of excluding Nijinsky from histories of Le Sacre goes back
the chosen one ’ s choice 81

over seventy years and may have begun with Stravinsky himself. Although the
composer at first admired Nijinsky’s choreography,31 by 1921 he had rejected
it as too bound to the “tyranny of the barline.”32 Stravinsky’s reasons for con-
demning Nijinsky may have been partly financial (in that he may have been
trying to get Nijinsky’s share of one-quarter of Le Sacre’s royalties), and partly
aesthetic (in that by 1921 he had adopted what was to become his neoclassi-
cal aesthetic). Whatever the case, the damage he did to Nijinsky, and the
degree to which he distorted the original Sacre, was considerable. This legacy
of violent refusal is still felt in Pieter van den Toorn’s Stravinsky and “The Rite
of Spring”: The Beginnings of a Musical Language (1987). Van den Toorn inves-
tigates the origins of Le Sacre in dance in the introduction to his book. But
rather than enrich his analysis with the information he finds, he proceeds to
reject the very interpretative path he has dared to open up: “the scenario
itself, the choreography, and, above all, the close ‘interdisciplinary’ condi-
tions of coordination under which the music is now known to have been
composed—these are matters which, after the 1913 premiere, quickly passed
from consciousness,” van den Toorn writes, “like pieces of scaffolding, they
were abandoned in favor of the edifice itself and relegated to the ‘extra-musi-
cal.’ They became history, as opposed to living art” (van den Toorn 1987, 2).
He implies through his use of passive voice that unseen and unknown forces
rather than developments in contemporary music, philosophy, and the dis-
cipline of music theory stripped Le Sacre of its history. He feels confident in
reducing Le Sacre to “the music itself” because he had the support of Stravin-
sky himself, whose process of rejecting Le Sacre’s original staging and chore-
ography he describes in careful historical detail. His well-researched and
informative history of the reception of the Le Sacre leads him to the disturb-
ing conclusion that the new sources linking the work to its original chore-
ography were “enlightening as commentary, [but] in no way undermine the
integrity of The Rite as ‘musical construction’ ” (21). Stravinsky may have
remembered the original choreography fondly in his late years and desired
a revival, but van den Toorn considers this a slip in judgment (16–17).33
There are several reasons why van den Toorn and many others have
rejected Nijinsky’s contribution to Le Sacre. First of all he was a dancer, and
thus the creator of an ephemeral art that could not be captured in rational
analysis or linked ontologically to music. Second, he was also mentally ill, suf-
fering from what Peter Ostwald later clinically categorized as both manic-
depressive psychosis and schizoaffective disorder in a narcissistic personality,
which caused him to be hospitalized in 1919 (Ostwald 1991, 349–50). This
illness, from which he never recovered and which kept him in and out of
institutions until his death in 1950, lead many commentators from the 1920s
on to assume tacitly that he had always been “crazy” and that his choreo-
graphic work was thus somehow invalid.34 Finally, Nijinsky was a bisexual
whose sexuality frightened and confused many people, during his time and
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long afterwards. One need only read Acocella, Garafola, and Greene’s vivid
description of who caused the sexual violence in Le Sacre:

Female sacrifice is an obsession of 19th century . . . But this is sacrifice with a

difference. Here there is no pretext: no poisoned scarf, no madness. The girl
is forthrightly sent to her death in order to benefit the community. The situa-
tion could hardly be more horrible. . . . In addition to sacrifice, there is scan-
dal. Nijinsky’s life was dogged not just by sorrow, but by scandal, and particu-
larly sexual scandal . . . [and by] the extraordinary role played by libido and
aggression. . . . There is also the sexual obsession that marked his unfinished
ballets, and that filled his diary, in the period immediately preceding his insti-
tutionalization. . . . [Le Sacre] is not just a biological ballet, but a ballet about
sex, and the violence with which that force can erupt into life, just as Nijinsky’s
audience erupted at the premiere. (Acocella, Garafola, and Greene 1992,

This description remarkably avoids the question of power in the ballet by

defining its rape in abstract terms (violence simply erupts all on its own).
The narrative implicates Nijinsky as the perpetrator, his lifestyle having
made him the most likely suspect. Acocella, Garafola, and Greene, however,
find the person who created the first Chosen One, and who can thus most
feasibly be associated with her victimization, guilty of the crime perpetrated
against her. Such a quotation is not characteristic of Acocella’s and
Garafola’s extraordinary work on the Ballets russes.

Stravinsky’s self-propaganda and the widespread fear of Nijinsky’s mental ill-

ness and bisexuality should not allow us to forget that Stravinsky, Roerich,
and Nijinsky originally collaborated on Le Sacre, and that they intended its
meaning to be communicated simultaneously through dance, the staging,
music, and costumes.35 Even Stravinsky admitted that visual images of mov-
ing bodies had inspired the music of Le Sacre. Early on in the collaborative
process, he confided to Roerich, for example, that “the picture of the old
woman in a squirrel fur sticks in my mind. She is constantly before my eyes
as I compose the ‘Divination with Twigs’: I see her running in front of the
group, stopping them sometimes, and interrupting the rhythmic flow. I am
convinced that the action must be danced and not pantomimed.”36 At the
time Stravinsky conceived of Le Sacre in terms of what critics were calling “art
plastique”—or music realized visually in space through dance. The dancer
expressed meaning through movement itself, rather than by miming recog-
nizable narratives. Therefore, the music had to embody bodily movement
that could express the message of the ballet directly to listeners. In Le Sacre,
Stravinsky felt, for example, “that I have penetrated the secret of the rhythm
of Spring and that musicians will feel it.”37
the chosen one ’ s choice 83

The notion of an “art plastique” that would combine drama, music, and
dance into a new form of artistic communication was very much on the minds
of French critics at the time of Le Sacre’s premiere, and found its intellectual
and visual formulation six months later in a special issue of the journal Mont-
joie.38 Ricciotto Canudo, Auguste Rodin, André Biguet, and others described
a new type of dance that they associated with the Futurist dancer Valentine
de Saint-Point, and with a composer who wrote for her, Erik Satie.39 “Meta-
chorie” (as Saint-Point called her invention) originated in the spirituality of
ancient myth and yet was realized in the modern forms of geometry.40 It
required “equivocal bodies,” which had neither the female nor male attri-
butes, and which acted in space according to “the relation of body mass.”41
Although Isadora Duncan had initiated this dance revolution by recreating
“plastic Greek myths,” she had made the drastic mistake of trying to dance
to sentimental and expressive nineteenth-century music. In contrast, the pro-
moters of “metachorie” envisioned a music that would itself embody the idea
of the dance, and found such an art form first realized in Le Sacre:
Expressive music needs conventional, banal, and even anti-artistic mime.
Dance does not succeed in translating artistic emotions with facial expressions.
What is really deep is the spirit, the gesture, the line that unrolls simultaneously
in depth and breadth. It is the dynamism of the two dimensions that creates the
marvelous beauty of dance and that nostalgically haunts the minds of painters.
Choreographic music must also develop in spatial depth. It must be con-
structed architecturally and rhythmically, in broad values and plans, like the
groups of Rodin, in order to mix with the geometric schemes of the choreog-
raphy and to penetrate it. This music was born with Le Sacre du Printemps.
Before that, there was dramatic music, descriptive music, and even so-called
pure music: since then there is choreographic music, fashioned in a certain
sense plastically according to the rhythm of the idea, in order to form with the
dance a new synthetic communion . . . For this to happen the essential idea
must encrust itself simultaneously in the being of the musician as musical
rhythms, and in the being of the choreographer as plastic rhythms. There has
to be an absolutely intimate penetration. (Chennevière 1914)

Although the contributors to the journal did not seem to think that Nijinsky
had been as successful as Saint-Point at realizing such music in dance, they
comment frequently on the importance of his choreography as “art plas-
tique.” The editor of Montjoie, Ricciardo Canudo, accompanied the reprint
of his manifesto on “art cérébriste,” as well as other articles in the issue, with
Valentine Gross-Hugo’s illustrations of the choreography of Le Sacre. In their
minds, Stravinsky’s Sacre was inextricably intertwined with Nijinsky’s chore-
ography as plastique animée.42
By January 1914, Stravinsky no longer agreed with the authors writing for
Montjoie. In 1912, however, he had been delighted to work with Nijinsky, to
whom he referred as “the ideal plastique collaborator.”43 From March to
84 tamara levitz

November 1912 they had met on more than five occasions (including a trip
to Venice), to work on Le Sacre.44 For a short time, their opinions on how
dance should express meaning corresponded.

Nijinsky’s Tragic Expression

In contrast to Adorno and other structural listeners, Nijinsky did not find
meaning in the language of musical structure, but rather in direct bodily
expressions. Throughout his life, “it had always been primarily by moving his
body or holding it still, by gesturing and posturing, by expressing himself
nonverbally, that he had been able to show what it meant to ‘be in the
world’ ” (Ostwald 1991, 223). In the diary he wrote on the verge of his men-
tal breakdown, Nijinsky circled obsessively around this topic: “I think little
and therefore understand everything I feel. I am feeling in the flesh and not
intellect in the flesh. I am the flesh. I am feeling. I am God in the flesh and
in feeling. I am man and not God. I am simple. People must not think me.
They must feel me and understand me through feeling.”45 In Le Sacre, Nijin-
sky wanted to create a “visceral understanding” of the story of the ballet
through metakinetic choreography (Hargrave 1985, 92). In simpler terms,
he spoke of the audience understanding the work in their gut; his Sacre would
be “a jolting impression and emotional experience.”46
Nijinsky’s belief in the communicative potential of bodily movement led
him to depart from the norms of classical ballet, in which, traditionally, a
narrative had been mimed. Now, movement told its own story, with the
result that the ballet lost its basis in narrative and focus on a main protago-
nist or hero. Le Sacre abandoned the very notion of dance as mimesis. For this
reason, many reviewers defined it as abstract. Jean Marnold commented, for
example, that, “ dance here is the action itself, stylized in its rhythm in order
to express the action of the legend, which is human and quasi-liturgical at the
same time. This dance replaces the ronds de bras and the chasses-croisés des
quadrilles with gestures and a figuration that are expressly symbolic, realizing
a stylization in the manner of Gauguin.”47 Jacques Rivières believed Nijinsky’s
greatest achievement was in the “doing away with dynamic artificiality, in the
return to the body, in the effort to adhere more closely to its natural move-
ments, in lending an ear only to its most immediate, most radical, most ety-
mological expressions.”48 By breaking up movement and bringing it back to
the simple gesture, Nijinsky allowed it to become more expressive. “One
doesn’t explain Le Sacre,” Émile Vieillermoz concluded, “one submits to it
with horror or pleasure according to one’s temperament.”49
The theory of bodily expressivity developed by Nijinsky for Le Sacre was
strongly inspired by his visit to Jaques-Dalcroze’s school of eurythmics in
Hellerau, Germany in 1912.50 During that visit, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and his
sister Nijinska had watched a group of girls walk in 2/4, gesticulating with
the chosen one ’ s choice 85

one arm in 3/4 and the other in 4/4. Diaghilev had been so inspired that he
had hired Jaques-Dalcroze’s student Marie Rambert to supervise the
rehearsals of Le Sacre in Monte Carlo in winter 1913.51 According to Nijinska,
Nijinsky himself performed such rhythmic counterpoints with ease. She
reported that he was so precise in translating rhythm into movement that he
could perform a 5/4 bar in midair. He first leapt into the air. “On beat 1 he
bent one leg at the knee and stretched his right arm above his head, on count
2 he bent his body towards the left, on count 3 he bent his body towards the
right, then on count 1, still high in the air, he stretched his body upwards
again and then finally came down lowering his arm on count 2, graphically
rendering each note of the uneven measure.”52 Nijinsky understood such an
approach to dance, in the spirit of Jaques-Dalcroze’s followers, as “plastique
animée,” and as a means of linking movement to feeling and training the
spirit through the body.53 He drew on these lessons when designing the
“Danse sacrale,” in which he gave the Chosen One an individual movement
for every event in Stravinsky’s music, translating it note for note into dance.
The “Danse sacrale” thus offers the rare example of a choreography in which
musical cells or motives are directly, literally associated with the specific ges-
tures of a dancing body. By using Dalcroze’s approach (which also appealed
to Stravinsky) Nijinsky gave each of the Chosen One’s gestures expressive
power and symbolic significance.54 Together, these gestures constituted her
identity as she danced through time. Through such detailed movement she
expressed her opposition to the people who had chosen her to die. Her
movements were immediate, yet not primitively void of subjective will and
choice, as Adorno and Taruskin imagined.
How does one begin to recover the lost movements Nijinsky felt commu-
nicated so much about how he understood Le Sacre and the choices of its Cho-
sen One? Perhaps the answer lies in the very real, twisting, tense, springing,
angry body of Nijinsky, as it moved in a humid practice room in Vienna or
London in winter 1913. Nijinsky, intense and concentrated, is teaching his
sister Nijinska the movements of the Chosen One’s “Danse sacrale.” Frus-
trated, he asks the rehearsal pianist, Steiman, to play over and over again
individual passages of the handwritten score that Stravinsky had sent him.55
Mesmerized by the tragedy of Nijinsky’s movements as he performs the
dance for her, Nijinska tries to visualize the dark clouds gathering in
Roerich’s painting The Call of the Sun, and to imagine what he has described
to her as the “awakening of the spirit of primeval man” (Nijinska 1992,
449–50). The room is filled with physical tension and conflict—the tighten-
ing of muscles that we will have to learn to remember if we are going to do
justice to the Chosen One.
What was Nijinsky expressing through the movements he created in that
forgotten practice room over eighty years ago? The dominant emotion, from
all accounts, seems to have been exactly what Adorno and Taruskin find miss-
86 tamara levitz

ing in Le Sacre: fear and a deep antagonism between the Chosen One and her
surroundings.56 Nijinsky experienced Stravinsky’s music in Taruskin’s spirit
as “some kind of monster, breathing evenly as it got nearer and nearer, a
monster with many hands, many legs, many eyes” (Krasovskaya 1979, 234).
He wanted the Chosen One to react to this horror with terror and outrage—
over her tragic fate and her helplessness in face of it. She would express her
anger through body tension, which Nijinsky created by choosing positions
and movements that contained the energy of the moving body, such as turn-
ing the feet inwards or holding the elbows close to the torso.57 No matter how
jagged and distorted Nijinsky’s movements became, he would never lose the
sense of rooting them in his “extraordinarily profound sense of his own cen-
ter,” creating a tornado of contained energy.58 This movement would not be
casual or light, but rather “conscious right down to its last detail” (Krasovskaya
1979, 244). In order to communicate to his sister how to express the emotion
he associated with such an intense exaggeration of body tension, he told her
that her body had to “draw into itself . . . and absorb the fury of the hurricane”
(Garafola 1989, 71; Nijinska 1992, 470). His performance of the Chosen
One’s dance expressed this tragic confrontation with fate: “With clenched fist
across his face, he threw himself into the air in paroxysms of fear and grief.
His movements were stylized and controlled, yet he gave out a tremendous
power of tragedy.”59
Nijinsky expressed the Chosen One’s painful confrontation with her com-
munity in Le Sacre by creating physical tension within her very body. This
choreographic practice contrasted starkly with “academic ballet [that]
emphasized effortless surface tension to obliterate any hint of energy
expended” (Kirstein 1976, 145). Through her knotted, tense body, the Cho-
sen One expressed all the conflict missing in Adorno and Taruskin—a con-
frontation between her own subjective will and the crushing threat of her
community and her fate.
One can speculate widely on the sources of Nijinsky’s angry passion for
the Chosen One. If Lynn Garafola is correct in arguing that she is a “creation
of twentieth-century male sexual anxiety,” and that she “takes the place of
the feminized artist,” than it would not be entirely misguided to interpret her
as representing Nijinsky himself, in which case his investment in her would
be self-explanatory.60 By the time of Le Sacre, audiences in France had
marked Nijinsky as a feminized artist or androgynous, exotic, foreign and
mysterious Other—an image Diaghilev had promoted, perhaps at Nijinsky’s
expense, by casting him in roles such as the Golden Slave in Schéhérezade or
in the Spectre de la rose. With Nijinsky, ballet had also become overnight a
“privileged arena for homosexuals as performers, choreographers, and spec-
tators”—a gay revolution that forced the women who had traditionally dom-
inated the ballet into the back seat.61 Nijinsky later struggled with this sexu-
ality, especially in his diary of 1919. It is possible that the community’s threat
the chosen one ’ s choice 87

in Le Sacre reminded him of the hostility toward his sexuality that he experi-
enced in his own life and subsequently internalized. He also created Le Sacre
in a hostile atmosphere, albeit of a very different kind, in which most of the
dancers rejected what he was doing (Nijinska 1992, 462). By not dancing the
role himself, but rather forcing his sister and then, when she got pregnant,
Maria Piltz, to dance it exactly as he wished, Nijinsky may have been experi-
menting with expressing his own desires through a female body.62 This may
explain why he was so passionate about the role, and why he did not want the
Chosen One to submit to the violence perpetrated on her. He expressed his
feeling of victimization by depicting the Chosen One in one of the episodes
of her dance as a maimed bird, as Nijinska remembered:
Suddenly, spontaneously, Nijinsky jumped. It was an awkward jump, as if he
were a wounded bird, one leg folded beneath him. He raised a clenched fist to
the sky and held the other to his body. Then he squatted down, touched the
ground with one hand, and began to stamp, beating his hands against his bent
knees. Now he resembled a bird busily building its nest. Still in his squatting
position, he took long paces off to the side and then covered his head with his
arm. As if in a low arabesque, he stretched out his leg, stuck out his arms and
banged them against the floor—as if they were wings.63

In his diary, Nijinsky links this bird symbolization to Diaghilev and himself:
Diaghilev is a terrible man. I do not like terrible men. I will not harm them. I
do not want them to be killed. They are eagles. They prevent small birds from
living, and therefore one must guard against them. . . . Eagles must not prevent
small birds from carrying on with their lives, and therefore they must be given
things to eat that will destroy their predatory intentions.64

Nijinsky felt intensely angry and increasingly violent during rehearsals

for Le Sacre. Perhaps this rage inspired him to give the Chosen One a sub-
jectivity and presence that distinguished her from traditional prima bal-
lerinas. In contrast to the latter, the Chosen One did not float gracefully
about the ground in beautiful revealing attire, but rather moved in a fash-
ion that accentuated her ugliness, lack of grace, and attachment to the
earth. Even her leaps upward were drawn downwards and reflected the
pull of gravity. Nijinsky used this emphasis on weight and falling to make
audiences aware of the Chosen One’s corporeal presence as an expression
of her subjective individuality.65 Such a heavy, ugly being was not easily
forgotten, construed as fiction, or confused with anyone else in the bal-
let.66 Her tense and unfamiliar movements constituted a “crime against
[the] grace” that had traditionally transformed dancing ballerinas from
individual bodies into stereotypical representations of abstract fantasy.
Here was a female haunted by the male body of its creator, Nijinsky
(Garafola 1999, 255).
88 tamara levitz

The Gestures of the “Danse sacrale”

The Chosen One’s conflict is vividly expressed in the gestures of her “Danse
sacrale.” In this section I compare Pierre Boulez’s, Allen Forte’s, and Pieter
van den Toorn’s analyses with an interpretation based on gesture, in order
to demonstrate how theoretical means of representing musical structure
have distorted and misconstrued the spatial dimensions of danced music,
leading interpreters like Adorno and Taruskin to false conclusions about the
work’s humanity.
Pierre Boulez wrote his influential analysis of Stravinsky’s “Danse sacrale”
just as he was rejecting the teachings of his mentor René Leibowitz, the
music of Schoenberg, and Adorno’s interpretation of the second Viennese
School. By explaining Stravinsky’s compositional strategy of creating musi-
cal form out of small, malleable, primarily rhythmic cells, Boulez hoped not
only to prove the progressiveness of Stravinsky’s compositional approach,
but also to justify his own desire to organize rhythm independently of pitch
and dynamics in his totally serial compositions (Boulez 1966, 75–146).67 In
contrast to Adorno, who understood Le Sacre as a ballet, and who based his
analysis to a large extent on the brief synopsis of the story that accompanied
that ballet’s original performance, Boulez understood the piece as a score,
as orchestral music, and nothing more.68 His approach had its advantages in
that, unlike Adorno, he provided exact detail about the score before him.
Boulez’s discussion of the Chosen One’s “Danse sacrale” omits her
entirely. He erases any memory of her bodily imprint on the music by reduc-
ing the latter to neatly laid out, largely symmetrical, two-dimensional graphs
and musical examples excerpted from their original context.69 His desire to
negate the choreographic foundation of the piece is reflected in his defini-
tion of the “Danse sacrale” as a rondo (with two refrains, two couplets, and a
coda on the refrain; Boulez 1966, 126). He is most interested, however, in
the relationship between the three musical cells that make up the basic mate-
rial of the refrain (see ex. 3.1).
Boulez labels these three cells A, B, and C. A is the equivalent of measure
2, while B represents measures 3 and 4 of the 1929 score. C appears in mea-
sure 9, or at rehearsal no. 144, and is defined by Boulez as a means of “bal-
ancing” A and B in an overall scheme in which all three cells (A, B, and C)
fit neatly into a fixed phrase structure (Boulez 1966, 127–28). He does not
define these cells according to measure or meter, however, but rather by the
number of beats they include, using the basic beat of a sixteenth note. He
describes how Stravinsky manipulates the lengths of these basic cells, creat-
ing a rhythmic structure that is not necessarily evident to the ear. Measures
1–8 become in his chart a symmetrical structure, in which A3 first precedes
and then follows A5 and B7. Cell C is inserted at the start of the second period,
which runs until rehearsal no. 146. In this period the A5 cell of A5 and B7 is
Example 3.1 Pierre Boulez, graph of the opening of the “Danse sacrale” (Boulez
1966, 128). © From Relevés d’apprenti, Éditions du Seuil.

1 ère
– Période.
gi ? gi g g
jh jh jh
A3 A5 B7 (3+4)
Γ15 (3+12)

2. gi g g g
Α5 (2+3) Β7 (3+4)
2 – Période. Γ ′15(12+3)
g gi gi g
hj hj (2+2)hj jh
C 8(3+3+2) A4 B7
gi gi g g
jh jh jh
C 5 (3+2) Α′5 A4 (2+2)
B7 A3
ÁC ′5Ë
Γ ′19 (5+11+3)
– Période.
gi gi gi gi gi gi
jh h jh jh
A5 B4 A 2 B4 A3 A5 B4

Γ9 Γ6 Γ12
jh jh
C5 C7
Exemple XVII.

1. — A3 A5 B7 , A5 B7 A3 , ce qui donne:
I Γ15 Γ ′15

2. — C8 , A4 B7 , C5 , Α′5 A4 B7 A3 : C8 Γ11 C5 Γ ′19

II . — A5 B4 , A2 B4 , A3 A5 B4 , C5 , C7 :
Γ9 Γ6 Γ12 C5 C7
90 tamara levitz

contracted to A4 (four beats), while cell B7 remains the same. C5 and A5 are
inserted before the repeat of A4 and B7, giving a clear example of Stravinsky’s
additive practice. The third period again involves the manipulation of all
three cells.
When the refrain returns after the first “couplet,” it does not use cell C at
all. In the coda on the refrain that appears at rehearsal no. 187, however, C
is used extensively and even exclusively from rehearsal no. 196 forward.
Boulez makes one nod to the choreography, by noting that the coda ends
with “an obvious movement dialectically tied to an implied immobility.”70
Otherwise, his approach flattens and detemporalizes the piece in a visual
representation that emphasizes subtraction and addition rather than the
continuous flow of time and movement. His geometrical representation sup-
presses the bodily action that could disrupt the static architectural con-
struction of the piece.71 His repeated rhythmic units cannot suggest forward
dynamic movement, and seem alienated from any sense of a bodily rhythm.
The analytical methodology, for all that it purports to focus on the rhythmic
dimension, actually abstracts this rhythm from the danced bodily continuity
that gave the piece its rhythmic life.
Boulez’s legacy left its mark on Allen Forte’s The Harmonic Organization of
“The Rite of Spring” (1978). Whereas Boulez concentrated on rhythm, Forte
focuses exclusively harmony, with the now familiar aim of securing Stravin-
sky a place in the musical canon next to Schoenberg by proving his newness
(Forte 1978, 19). His lack of interest in the historical, social, and cultural con-
text of Le Sacre is reflected in his inability to create a narrative for his book.
He replaces the richness of literary prose with a list-like description of the
pitch-class sets used throughout the piece, which drains the piece of all its
rhythmic vitality. The Chosen One is no longer mentioned, her fate deemed
as secondary as the timbres, rhythms, musical gestures, and melodies that
surround her. His sanitized structural approach retains at least one histori-
cal trace, however, that of Stravinsky’s sketches, which help Forte to prove
that Stravinsky intended to use the pitch-class sets found in the score.72
In Stravinsky and “The Rite of Spring”: The Beginnings of a Musical Language,
Pieter van den Toorn, like Forte, brackets out in his interpretation of the
“Danse sacrale” all “extra-musical” elements except the sketchbook, which
he also accepts as part of the musical score.73 He divides his analysis between
different chapters of his book, on issues ranging from re-barring Stravinsky’s
music and rhythmic structure to and pitch structure. In this manner, the
reader loses all sense of the dance as a unified piece; the Chosen One like-
wise disappears behind an analysis that emphasizes systematic regularity. Van
den Toorn criticizes Boulez for having “taken the irregular or shifting meters
[in Le Sacre] at face value” and for having ignored “the role of steady metric
periodicity” (van den Toorn 1987, 67). He argues that “if the shifting accents
or stresses are to have meaning, then this can come only to the extent that
the chosen one ’ s choice 91

the resultant patterns are tied to regularity . . . [or] hidden implications of

steady periodicity” (71). In his graph (which strongly resembles Boulez’s in
configuration, even in his choice of the 1929 score), van den Toorn cleverly
demonstrates that Boulez’s A and B cells be better understood if placed
within the feasible context of a fixed meter of 2/8, which makes the shifting
accents evident (see ex. 3.2).
Van den Toorn notes that such a graph can not explain “the impact of the
disruption” in the passage. This does not prevent him, however, from letting
it stand as it is, in spite of the fact that it omits important sections of the music
(96). Note, in particular, how he omits Boulez’s A3 cell at the end of the sec-
ond system, for example, and how he jumps to the repetition of the combi-
nation of A4 and B7, omitting everything that happens between. Visually, he
presents his analysis in a static chart, resembling a carefully stacked tower of
building blocks, whose vertical alignment is indicated with neat dotted lines.
In a separate chapter of his book, he gives further background unity to
Boulez’s cells (which he calls blocks) in terms of their pitch-class set and octa-
tonic content. Cell C becomes neutralized as the “continuation of the
[pitch] collectional implications of cell A” (203).
The neutralized graphs and lists of Boulez’s, Forte’s, and van den Toorn’s
analyses contrast sharply with the dynamic, conflicted images of the “Danse
sacrale” as live dance. The antagonism between the Chosen One and her
community there becomes immediately evident, even in the dance move-
ments used for the first seventeen bars of the “Danse sacrale.”74 Nijinsky’s
choreography for this section begins with the Chosen One standing in
place: “her folded hand under her right cheek, her feet turned in” (Rambert
1972, 64). She has been standing this way for a very long time, and Stravin-
sky indicates in his four-hand piano score that she will remain fixed to this
spot for another while.75 Her excruciating period of immobility is important
to the psychology of the work, because it provides a stark contrast to the
dynamism of the dance solo that follows.76 The Chosen One’s potential vic-
timization is emphasized by the circle of dancers around her, which reflect
the circles of Roerich’s geometrically ornamented costume designs.77 This
human circle blocks the Chosen One from the audience’s view. Nijinsky
understood such a circle as the “center which generated feeling,” and dra-
matically built tension to a point of release. By positioning the body within
such a closed geometric space, Nijinsky perfected his idea of containing bod-
ily tension.78
The ancestors in bearskins encircle the Chosen One in a hostile fashion
that hardly indicates the expression of an undifferentiated community.
Stravinsky also gives no indication that these ancestors have made the Cho-
sen One feel at one with them. He initially labeled the section preceding this
one “Wild Dance—Amazons” [Dikaya Plyaska (Amazoni)] and emphasized
that the women surrounding the Chosen One at that point should dance a
Example 3.2 Pieter van den Toorn, example from the opening of the “Danse
sacrale” (van den Toorn 1987, 95).

142 1 2 3
1 2 1 2>g 1 2
gi ? ' gi 'g
! 16 C 16 C 16 C C CC C Y CC W X CC C 16
# 3 gi YY CC TU 2 C Y jC 3 TU h TU h 28 2
16 C hj 16 C h 16 16
a5 b7

1 2 3
1 2 1 2>g 1 2
' gi 'g
! 16 C 16 C CC C Y CC W X CC C
# 2 C YC 3 TU h UT h 28
16 C jh 16
a5 b7

144 +2
1 2 3
1 2 1>g 2 1

! 28 T U CC U
16 C YC X C C
g YY C C gi YY C C CC Y Y C C X X C C Y Y C C
# 2 Ci YY CC T U 3 C h 28
8 C 16 C
a4 b7
145 +2
3 1 2
1 2 1 >g 2 1 2

! 28 T U
16 C C YC X C C
g Y CC
# 2 Ci YY CC TU U
3 T h 28
8 C 16
a4 b7
the chosen one ’ s choice 93

“wild martial” dance.79 She was not glorified, but rather ostracized, cruelly
chosen for her sacrifice because of the simple fact that she trips just before
rehearsal no. 101. Marie Rambert indicated the violent reaction of the
women around her: they stomp their feet at rehearsal no. 103, and rush at the
Chosen One with fists “as though they want to hack her” at rehearsal no.
The community’s hateful response in Nijinsky’s choreography is more
clearly put in perspective if compared with Mary Wigman’s feminist pro-
duction of Le Sacre in 1957. Wigman choreographed the very same music and
yet allowed the Chosen One to be part of a caring and respectful community
led by a group of older priestesses. At the moment when she would have
tripped in Nijinsky’s choreography, Wigman’s Chosen One is just about to
meet a young man—an event that will emphasize her humanity. She is
thwarted in this attempt by the three older priestesses, who know she must
be saved for the sacrifice. When Nijinsky’s amazons would have stomped in
anger, Wigman allows men to come on stage with rope, in order to tie the
Chosen One as the maidens around her sway in devotion. Finally, at
rehearsal no. 107, where Nijinsky’s women rush at the Chosen One with their
fists, Wigman allows them to sway and vibrate while she prepares to receive
her crown—surrounded by the three old priestesses who accompany and
guide her to her death.81 The Chosen One’s ritual sacrifice in Wigman’s Le
Sacre takes place within a (albeit ideologically problematic) community with
venerated traditions and a sense of its own future. In Nijinsky’s choreogra-
phy, on the other hand, it is an act of sheer terror and panic.
Suddenly, at rehearsal no. 142, Nijinsky’s Chosen One leaps vigorously
into the air, timing her movements to occur on each off-beat sixteenth-note
chord of cell A. The light attack Stravinsky required on these offbeat chords
facilitates her leap toward the sky, as an expression of her desire to live and
to escape her fate and the clutches of the ancestors who surround her.
Stravinsky further underscored her physical move away from the earth by
having these chords played pizzicato.82 This movement is in extreme con-
trast to the rest of the ballet, which has been primarily about the body’s
attachment to the earth. The astonishing optical allusion of these leaps is
that they are not actually at regular intervals, as they at first seem to be.
Rather, the Chosen One respects the addition of the sixteenth-note to the
sixteenth-note off-beat chord in measure 3, and thus delays her leap so that
it coincides with the next off-beat eighth-note chord in measure 4. In mea-
sure 10, when Stravinsky omits part of cell A, the Chosen One omits her
leap; when he allows cell A to return in measure 13 with a sixteenth-note
missing, the Chosen One shifts her leaps so she lands on the ground on the
downbeat of measure 14.
Nijinsky follows the cell structure of Stravinsky’s music, by having the
Chosen One perform a new, distinct gesture for cell B. According to Mil-
94 tamara levitz

licent Hodson, the Chosen One bends painfully backwards from the waist
here, ending her phrases in a twisted turn in which something coming
from above appears to crush her. This movement symbolizes vividly the
weight of the oppressive forces she has upon her, and her inability to free
herself from them. This expression of weakness is followed immediately,
however, by the surprise interruption of cell C at rehearsal no. 144. Here,
a startling new symbol of resistance is inserted into the choreography: the
Chosen One “makes a convulsive jump on one leg, having crossed and
raised the other in front of her; squeezing one hand into a fist, she threat-
ens the heavens while the other hand is held close to her body” (see fig.
3.1).83 This moment marks a surprising break and hardly has the neutral
character of an “insertion” sought in both Boulez’s and van den Toorn’s
analyses: it pierces the musical fabric, disrupting any notion of a unified
voice in the work.84
As the sacrificial dance proceeds, the opposing gestures associated with
cells B and C become more prominent. The refrain returns four times,
accompanied by the same movements to cells A, B, and C, yet varied to
reflect the Chosen One’s exhaustion and dejection over the inevitability of
her fate. The fact that she dances this refrain each time to the same fast
tempo, which is otherwise not maintained throughout, and especially not in
her final episode, emphasizes how important this section of the music is to
the Chosen One’s assertion of her will.85 Between the refrains, during her
episodes, the Chosen One succumbs more to her community, by acting like
a maimed bird, spinning ever so briefly like a top, and banging her straight-
ened leg on the ground.86 She repeatedly emerges from these moments, how-
ever, to return to her initial phrase, most strikingly at rehearsal no. 180, when
all the ancestors gather to watch her. This refrain is an abrupt interruption
of five measures, containing only cells A and B. After this startling interrup-
tion, the Chosen One gathers the strength to return to this position of defi-
ance one last time, from rehearsal no. 186 onward, when the refrain returns
as a coda. Stravinsky originally scored this section lightly to emphasize the
Chosen One’s leaps into the air.87 The conflict she feels between defiance
and oppression is best expressed after rehearsal no. 192, when the music is
reduced to the alternating gestures of cells B and C. Stravinsky was dismayed
at how most interpreters missed this moment, which he called a “dialectical
structure of phrases.”88 At rehearsal no. 197, cell B is suddenly left out, in
what Stravinsky called a turning point in the music (Vera Stravinsky and Rob-
ert Craft 1978, 514). The Chosen One is left to end her dance with an inces-
sant hammering out of her most powerful physical motive of defiance (on
cell C; see fig. 3.1). Her driving music successfully destroys the static back-
ground of the ancestors. She will die, but not without making her final defi-
ant gesture. Cell C will prevail.
the chosen one ’ s choice 95

Figure 3.1 Valentine Gross-Hugo, drawing reprinted in Hodson 1996, 166.

Perceiving the Chosen One’s Choice

The first audience to witness Le Sacre was so baffled by the “Danse sacrale,”
and especially by Nijinsky’s decision to adopt Jaques-Dalcroze’s method,
which many critics frequently interpreted at that time, especially in Germany
and France, as a mechanical and inartistic means of visualizing music.89 The
critics perceived Nijinsky’s choreography as inanimate, machine-like, and
inartistic, and were blind to its symbolic meanings. Often, they understood
it as primitive, without realizing, as Nicholas Roerich noted, that their
romanticized primitivism “had nothing to do with the refined primitivism of
our ancestors, for whom rhythm, symbols and refinement of gesture were
essential and sacred concepts.”90 Their impressions of Nijinsky’s choreogra-
phy were distorted by the performance of Maria Piltz, who had been called
in to dance the Chosen One at the premiere after Nijinska discovered that
96 tamara levitz

she was pregnant. According to Prince Volonsky, Piltz had mechanically

acted out what Nijinsky told her to do, replacing his conscious moves with
limp empty gestures.91 Marie Rambert also recalled that Piltz’s “reproduction
was very pale by comparison with [Nijinsky’s] ecstatic performance, which
was the greatest tragic dance I have ever seen” (Rambert 1972, 64). Her
frightened movements unfortunately formed the basis for over seventy years
of critical interpretation of the work.
The audience who experienced the first Sacre expected a narrative, famil-
iar gestures, overwhelming sensual impressions, and beauty, and had little
training in how to concentrate on the meaning communicated by the pure
movement of desexualized bodies. Nijinsky’s practice of sacrificing himself
totally to a dramatic role became alienating when transferred over to the
entire ballet troupe, whose lack of sentimental involvement in the narrative
struck critics as terrifyingly inhuman. Nijinsky’s choreographic approach was
so unfamiliar that most critics wondered how to interpret it.92
The exception was Jacques Rivières, who wrote a remarkably insightful
review for the Nouvelle revue française. Rivières spoke at length about Nijin-
sky’s aesthetic experiment, which he understood intuitively. Stravinsky’s
music had choreographic properties that had led Nijinsky to create a dance
stripped of what Rivières called “le sauce,” or any extra, superficial elements.
“The newness of the Sacre du printemps was in the renunciation of this
dynamic sauce, in a return to the body, in the effort to grasp more closely its
natural steps, in listening only to its most immediate, radical, etymological
indications. The movement here is reduced to obeying. It is brought back
unceasingly to the body, fastened to it, recaptured, pulled backwards by it,
like someone whose elbows we are holding so that they don’t get away” (Riv-
ières 1947, 86). This movement does not render and make visible emotion,
but rather uses the latter only as its point of departure, from which it quickly
departs through its involvement in its own development (89). The ultimate
goal of such an approach is to “arrive at a material, full, and somehow
opaque imitation of the emotions” or “physical image of the passions of the
soul.” “Each gesture of the dancer is like a word that resembles it,” Rivières
concluded, ending his essay with a brief contemplation on how uncomfort-
able and sad all this made him feel.93
The Chosen One’s capacity for defiant expression was not lost on all the
spectators who crowded into the Théâtre du Champs Elysée on that spring
day in May 1913. Valentine Gross-Hugo perceived her in this manner, and
expressed her interpretation in a series of sketches of the “Danse sacrale,”
which were published in the dance issue of the journal Montjoie discussed
above.94 Gross-Hugo reproduced very brief excerpts of the score, associating
with each a drawing of one of the dancer’s individual gestures. She depicted
six excerpts of Stravinsky’s piano score:
the chosen one ’ s choice 97

No. 1: presents rehearsal no. 142, measure 2, the beginning of cell A.

Gross-Hugo has depicted the Chosen One’s first leap into the air.
No. 2: presents rehearsal no. 149, during which the Chosen One stands
“trembling on the spot cheek trembling on folded hands” (Marie Rambert).
The ancestors proceed back on stage, entrapping her as she tries to flee.95
No. 3: reflects rehearsal no. 165, the Chosen One spinning as the ances-
tors begin to exit. Gross-Hugo later noted that the dancer “turns in a vertig-
inous way like a top, so long and so fast that her long hair flows from her in
a horizontal line” (Hodson 1996, 179).
No. 4: depicts rehearsal no. 174. Gross-Hugo comments that “the chosen
one moved her limbs more freely in this section, into ever larger movements,
all leading toward the final entreaty, all rendered desperate and ecstatic at
the same time. A call, a repeated strident cry, amplified itself and raised itself
to the level of a terrifying threat in the ultimate paroxysm.”96
No. 5: offers rehearsal no. 181. “The dancer executes a sort of pas de chat
landing on the right leg and then on the left, assisted by the arms . . . the
body following the exact rhythm of the measure in a sort of continual pas de
chat, but the position of the arms is as unusual as that of the feet in the land-
ing” (Gross-Hugo, quoted in Hodson 1996, 190).
No. 6: illustrates rehearsal no. 195. The Chosen One’s “final paroxysm”
(Gross-Hugo, quoted in Hodson 1996, 197).

Gross-Hugo’s narrative for the sacrificial dance depicts it in three-dimen-

sional images and gives it an optimistic turn. She visualizes the music, giving
it back its original sense as plastique animée. Understanding the importance
of the leap upward in Stravinsky’s and Nijinsky’s work, she sketches the Cho-
sen One almost exclusively in flight, in a state of dynamic, energetic move-
ment. Although the Chosen One was dancing to her death, Gross-Hugo rep-
resents only her acts of defiance and choice. Thus a variation of cell C, the
gesture of defiance, receives important emphasis in the center of the page.
Gross-Hugo even exaggerates the Chosen One’s freedom by depicting her
more in the style of Isadora Duncan, leaping gracefully into the air, instead
of being bound by Nijinsky’s choreography to the earth. In interpreting the
score in this way, she allows her readers to recognize that the Chosen One
has the potential to take control of her own life, rather than remain a victim.
Perhaps the Chosen One “chose” to die, to dissolve into her own movement
and energy, as Nijinsky himself later decided to do.
Performed only five times in Paris, and three times in London, Nijinsky’s
Sacre did not survive as part of the repertoire of twentieth-century ballet. Yet
his sister, Nijinska, the first Chosen One, went on to become one of the most
important choreographers of the 1920s, while his assistant Marie Rambert
founded the Ballets Rambert in England. All the dancers in Le Sacre remem-
98 tamara levitz

bered the movements Nijinsky had taught them, and passed them on. Most
spectators did not quickly forget Nijinsky either, or the statement he had
made in his Sacre. In this manner an unwritten tradition was created, which
developed momentum as the century moved on. Social codes of behavior
changed, allowing Mary Wigman by 1957 to create the first “feminist” Sacre.
And by 1976, Pina Bausch would use the role of the Chosen One to define
“women [a]s the subject rather than the object, experiencing her feelings
from the inside, intent on her own events,” as Christy Adair has eloquently
commented.97 The Chosen Ones they created had vibrancy, social meaning,
and cultural relevance and created a tradition for the piece that was distinct
from, but hardly inferior to, its tradition as a concert piece. Frequently, the
soloist dancing the Chosen One argued and disagreed with the choreogra-
pher, thus replicating the spirit of dissension that characterized the collab-
oration between Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and Piltz.98 Their historically contin-
gent work demonstrated the limitations of any project that tried to define Le
Sacre as an expression of an objective spirit, essentialist politics, or of pure
reason based on structural listening. With his Sacre, Nijinsky stood up to
Stravinsky, and held strong. The tension of their physical and creative strug-
gle, transformed into the passionate, contained but defiant gestures of the
Chosen One, strains against all totalizing readings of the music. At that infa-
mous premiere in Paris over eighty years ago, Nijinsky opened a door, not to
inhumanity and fascism, but rather to a new form of dance for the twentieth
century. As Nijinska (1992, 470) concluded: “An awareness of the need for
fearless self-expression—of the original, of the individual, of the unknown in
art—awakened that night.”

I am grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for
a three-year research grant that enabled me to begin work on this project in archives
in Germany and Switzerland. I would like to thank in particular Werner Grünzweig
at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, and Ulrich Mosch and Felix Mayer at the Paul
Sacher Stiftung in Basel for their kindness and permission to view materials in their
archives. Finally, I want to extend my deepest gratitude to the Stanford Humanities
Center, a remarkable institution where I had the good fortune to complete my work
on this topic as a fellow in fall 1999.
1. Subotnik 1996, 149; 162–63; 168. See the introduction to this volume for some
of my further remarks on Subotnik’s argument.
2. In recent years, Nicholas Cook has published some of the most illuminating
arguments on why and how musicologists are moving toward performance studies.
See Cook 1998 and 2001.
3. I have chosen to use the French titles of the piece, because they accompanied
its first publication in a four-hand piano version in 1913, and are well established. The
the chosen one ’ s choice 99

English titles were only added to the published score in 1967. See van den Toorn
1987, 25–27 and Taruskin 1996, 1:861.
4. Subotnik mentions the dancing body only briefly, in note 75 of her chapter.
Characteristically she quotes a source that describes modern ballet as “abstract.” In
other words, she evokes an image of modern ballet that negates or tries to tran-
scend the dancing body, revealing in this way her own tendency to view dancing
bodies as distinct from the visuality of the musical experience. See Subotnik 1996,
5. Adorno 1978, 39. All translations from German and French to English in this
essay are my own.
6. See Witkin 1998, 144; and Adorno 1978, 40.
7. See Witkin 1998, 129; 130.
8. Dennis 1998, 53–56. See also Paddison 1993, 48.
9. See Adorno, “Stravinsky: Ein dialektisches Bild,” Forum ( June/July/August
1962); republished in Adorno 1997, 208.
10. This argument remains an important part of Adorno’s later “Stravinsky: Ein
dialektisches Bild” (Adorno 1963).
11. See Taruskin 1995, 6–7. This article was republished, in a modified version,
in Taruskin 1997, 360–88.
12. Taruskin 1995, 3. In the late 1990s, Taruskin’s main opponents were Kofi
Agawu and Pieter van den Toorn. In Music, Politics, and the Academy, the latter ques-
tioned the “musical significance” of Taruskin’s historical and analytical studies of
Stravinsky’s Russian roots (van den Toorn 1995, 196). Van den Toorn claimed that
“once individual works begin to prevail for what they are in and of themselves and not
for what they represent, then context itself, as a reflection of this transcendence,
becomes less dependent on matters of historical placement.” Van den Toorn con-
fused the notion of music as a form of communication necessarily invested with soci-
etal and historical meaning with the idea of music as representation of something
outside itself (van den Toorn 1995, 144). Kofi Agawu likewise judged Taruskin’s his-
torical work on the octatonic scale to be of “dubious” significance, consisting of noth-
ing more than “a corroborative evidence for patterns observed in Stravinsky’s scores”
(Agawu 1993, 92). The fact that Agawu demands that historians provide a “technical
demonstration” of how context relates to music shows how unwilling he likewise is to
accept a hermeneutical approach in the cultural sciences as a viable alternative to sci-
entific inquiry.
13. Taruskin 1992, 197; and 1993, 288–89. See also Taruskin 1995, 2–3.
14. Adorno differed from Taruskin in offering an alternative to music that was
ideologically tainted, namely music that mirrored the most progressive state of con-
sciousness and thus contained philosophical truth. Taruskin offered no such model
to counter the negative image provided by Stravinsky, leading us to the conclusion
that the affirmative music he envisioned may be utopic in Paul Ricoeur’s sense,
although I think Taruskin would adamantly deny such a proposition. (See Ricoeur
15. Taruskin confirms his sympathy for Adorno’s conclusions about Stravinsky on
occasion, and links his own interpretation to Adorno’s theory of permanent regres-
sion. See Taruskin 1995, 20; 1993, 287; and 1997, 385–86; 424.
100 tamara levitz

16. Taruskin 1997, 344; 424. See also 1995, 17. I am not sure why Taruskin uses
the German word “Individuum” here, which is quite distinct from Adorno’s “Subjekt.”
17. Taruskin describes such a transcendence of the individual ego in Scriabin’s
use of the six-tone, symmetrical mystic chord. See Taruskin 1997, 344.
18. Igor Stravinsky, Chroniques de ma vie, vol. 1 (Paris: Les Éditions Denoël et
Steele, 1935), 69; translated into English in Stravinsky 1962, 31. Taruskin (1996,
1:849–66) gives a remarkable history of Stravinsky’s fabrication of this dream.
According to his account, Stravinsky originally reported this dream to his first biog-
rapher, who described it as “a young maiden dancing to the point of exhaustion
before a group of old men of fabulous age, dried out practically to the point of pet-
rifaction” (André Schaeffer, quoted in Taruskin 1996, 1:862). Note how the issue of
a pagan rite is not included in the original dream, which emphasizes rather the oppo-
sition between the sexual potency of the young girl and the impotent older specta-
tors surrounding her. Note also that Roerich did not envision such a sacrifice in his
original version of Le Sacre (see Taruskin 1996, 1:861).
19. The term “zhertva” means simultaneously sacrifice and victim in Russian. Nev-
ertheless, this title is most often translated as “The Great Sacrifice.” See the libretto
for Le Sacre in Stravinsky’s hand reprinted in Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft 1978,
78; and Stravinsky’s letter to Alexander Benois from 16 November 1910, ibid., 82. See
also Taruskin 1996, 1:871.
20. Stravinsky 1935, 1:105; 1962, 48. Stravinsky described the adolescents in Le
Sacre as “not fully formed: their sex is unique and double, like that of a tree” in “Ce
que j’ai voulu exprimer dans Le Sacre du Printemps,” Montjoie, 29 May 1913; reprinted
in Lesure 1980, 14.
21. In spite of Adorno’s suspicions that Le Sacre was neither a critical nor an
enlightened work, he shied away from identifying its absence of subjectivity with fas-
cism. Rather, he believed that the work could never have been performed in the
Third Reich, because the National Socialists would not have stood such an expression
of their own barbarism. Adorno saw the roots of Stravinsky’s inhumanity not in fas-
cism, but in liberalism. See Adorno 1978, 137.
22. Adorno uses the word “parasite” on p. 178.
23. In spite of the intensive critical attention that has been focused on Adorno’s
Philosophie der neuen Musik, I have not been able to find a single account that takes into
consideration his definition of dance. In that it is highly unlikely that Adorno saw
Nijinsky’s original performance of 1912 (when he was nine years old), or Massine’s in
Paris in 1920, one can assume he probably saw Marion Hermann’s choreography
in Frankfurt am Main in January 1931 (or, less likely, Lasar Galpen’s choreography in
Cologne in May 1930). He did not arrive in Hollywood early enough to have witnessed
Lester Horton’s Americanized version of the ballet. There is all but no information on
Marion Hermann’s choreography and performance of the work. See Manning 1991,
129–58. See also Berg 1988. For a list of choreographies of Le Sacre to 1991 see Aco-
cella, Garafola, and Green 1992, 68–100.
24. In focusing on Adorno’s subjective experience and imagination, I am not
ignoring the fact that he defined his Philosophie der neuen Musik specifically as an
objective Geschichtsphilosophie of modern music that did not reflect his own subjective
opinions, but rather his insight into the Hegelian objective spirit (objektiver Geist) of
the chosen one ’ s choice 101

the musical works he analyzed. (See Adorno, “Missverständnisse,” Melos 17, no. 3
[1950]; republished in Adorno 1975, 203–6.) In contrast to Dahlhaus and other crit-
ics, however, I do not think Adorno’s claims for his philosophy should stop us from
examining its roots in his own experience. I believe looking for objective spirit in a
dancing body is a highly problematic enterprise. See Dahlhaus 1987a, 9–15.
25. Dominique Dupuy notes that the body can frequently turn into a body-
machine in the minds of those who have forgotten it. He urges his readers to think
of the living body in other terms than as an object made to express something. See
his comments, quoted in Launay 1993. See also Dupuy 1995, 165–66.
26. Taruskin 1995, 19. Taruskin admitted at one point that he thought audiences
created “tremendous” stagings in their imaginations of how Le Sacre would be danced,
and that their actual visual exposure to the work thereafter was “often disappointing.”
See ibid., 8.
27. It is interesting that Taruskin did not find it relevant to examine Nijinsky’s
choreography for Stravinsky’s work, especially in view of the fact that he completed
such a thorough investigation of the work’s genesis. In no fewer than 117 pages on
the composition of Le Sacre, Taruskin mentions Nijinsky only once, in passing
(Taruskin 1996, 1:875). In Defining Russia Musically, Taruskin dismisses Nijinsky’s
work as playing a “negligible role in the ballet’s history” (Taruskin 1997, 380). See
also Taruskin 1995, 16.
28. Milan Kundera has lamented the fact that so many critics have been fright-
ened by the ecstasy expressed in Le Sacre, rather than enjoying and reveling in it. See
Kundera 1991.
29. Taruskin 1996, 1:865; for Blok’s involvement, see 849–51.
30. A survey conducted by Dance Magazine in 1998 concluded that Nijinsky was the
most loved dancer of all time, although the vast majority of people have never seen
him dance (in that no film documentation exists). How powerfully Nijinsky must
have danced himself into our historical consciousness and creative imaginations, to
have achieved such a status over seventy years after he last danced on stage! And what
a strong will it must have taken to have barred him from the history and analysis of
his most famous work, Le Sacre.
31. Stravinsky, letter to Max Steinberg, 5 June 1913, reprinted in translation in
Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft 1978, 102. In this letter, Stravinsky writes that “Nijin-
sky’s choreography was incomparable. With the exception of a few places, everything
is as I wanted it.” See also Lesure 1990, 16; and van den Toorn 1987, 16. Charles M.
Joseph concludes that Stravinsky was worried about Nijinsky’s well-being at the time
of preparing Le Sacre, and arranged diversions for him. See Joseph 1999, 194–96.
32. Stravinsky, “Interview with Stravinsky,” The Observer, 8 July 1921; reprinted in
Lesure 1990, 76–77. Some of the most devastating criticism of Nijinsky is included in
Stravinsky 1935, 80–106 (Stravinsky 1962, 36–48). Stravinsky complained most often
about Nijinsky’s lack of musical knowledge and skill. Although this has proven to be
an unfair judgment, Pieter van den Toorn continues to promote it (see van den
Toorn 1987, 8). For more positive assessments of Nijinsky’s musical abilities, see Nijin-
ska 1992, 458; and Denby 1977, 18.
33. I am not sure why van den Toorn and others feel they have to choose between
Le Sacre as music and Le Sacre as a ballet. Why were they not able to let the two tradi-
102 tamara levitz

tions of Le Sacre peacefully coexist, as they surely have historically throughout the
twentieth century?
34. When Stravinsky was completing Memories and Commentaries, he planned to
undermine Nijinsky further by remarking that “Everyone who knew Nijinsky
expected he would relapse into insanity; he had a mad brother, a blind uncle, a deaf
cousin, Diaghilev said that the family was syphilitic.” Nijinska asked him to omit this
passage, and he subsequently did. These documents are held in the Stravinsky
Archive at the Paul Sacher Stiftung. I am curious why Stravinsky felt compelled to lash
out at Nijinsky in this manner.
35. Stravinsky called the work a “choreodrama” in a letter to N. F. Findeizen,
translated into English by Robert Craft in appendix II to Stravinsky 1969, 32. See also
“Le Sacre du Printemps,” in Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft 1978, 512.
36. Stravinsky to Nicholas Roerich, 13 (26) November 1911; translated into
English by Robert Craft in appendix II to Stravinsky 1969, 30.
37. Stravinsky to Nicholas Roerich, 6 March 1912, translated into English by Rob-
ert Craft in appendix II to Stravinsky 1969, 30.
38. Montjoie 1–2, Numéro consacré à la Danse Contemporaine ( January–Febru-
ary 1914). There has been so much focus on Stravinsky’s article for Montjoie on 29
May 1913 that this later issue has been overlooked.
39. For information on Saint-Point, see Berghaus 1993 and Satin 1990. See also
Brandstetter 1995, 366–85; and Franko 1995, 21–24.
40. Saint-Point 1914. There are several articles in this issue about ritual dances of
peoples outside Europe, which the writers associate with a spirituality required for the
new art of dance. See, for example, Kharis, “La danse d’orient”; Jean-Paul d’Aile, “Les
danses sud-américaines”; and Henri Siégler-Pascal, “La religion de la danse.”
41. Postel du Mas 1914. Stravinsky’s vision of using adolescents for Le Sacre whose
“sex was not fully formed” can be related to attempts at blurring gender identity in
modern dance in this period.
42. There are several sources that are helpful in gaining a preliminary insight into
the nature of the “art plastique” and abstract dance Canudo and other were propos-
ing. I would mention: Copeland and Cohen 1983; Franko 1995; and even Acocella
and Garafola 1991.
43. Stravinsky, “Ce que j’ai voulu exprimer dans Le Sacre du Printemps,” in Lesure
1980, 14.
44. The best chronology of the genesis of Le Sacre is still provided in Vera Stravin-
sky and Robert Craft 1978, 84–92. See also Hodson 1987, 53–66.
45. Nijinsky 1995, 24. In this passage Nijinsky continues: “Scholars will ponder
over me, and they will rack their brains needlessly, because thinking will produce no
results for them. They are stupid. They are beasts. They are meat. They are death.”
46. Nijinsky, letter to Stravinsky from 25 January 1913, quoted in English in
Garafola 1989, 68.
47. Jacques Marnod in Mercure de France, 1 October 1913; quoted in Lesure 1990,
21–22; rpt. in Lesure 1980, 35–38.
48. Jacques Rivières, “Le Sacre du printemps,” Nouvelle revue française, November
1913; rpt. in Rivières 1947, 90.
49. Émile Vieillermoz, quoted in Jameux 1990, 25.
the chosen one ’ s choice 103

50. Odom 1997, 29–39. See also Nijinska 1992, 451; and Rambert 1972, 53–54.
51. Marie Rambert thus began her work with Nijinsky on Le Sacre after the first
rehearsals had begun in late fall 1912. It is likely that Nijinsky’s choreography
changed under her guidance. See Nijinska 1992, 457–58.
52. Nijinska 1992, 460. Hodson assumes that these moves would have been
danced by the Chosen One, and yet gives no evidence to support this claim. See Hod-
son 1996, 168.
53. On Dalcroze’s method as “plastique animée” see Giertz 1975, 59 and Levitz
2001. Concerning Jaques-Dalcroze’s teachings at this time, see Jaques-Dalcroze
1912/1913; Jaques-Dalcroze 1912 and 1965.
54. Stravinsky’s correspondence with Dalcroze is documented in Stravinsky 1984,
55. Bronislava Nijinska remembers practicing the “Danse sacrale” before Novem-
ber 1912, using a “score” sent by Stravinsky (Nijinska 1992, 448–49). This seems to
contradict other evidence that exists about the work. First, Stravinsky only finished
the work on 17 November 1912. He commented in a letter to Roerich on 14 Decem-
ber 1912 that Nijinsky had only begun the staging on 13 December 1912. On 18
December, Serge Grigoriev wrote that Nijinsky had still not started the rehearsals,
and was waiting for Roerich’s costumes. By the end of January, Nijinsky had still only
had five rehearsals of the ballet (since Stravinsky left Vienna that month), and made
no mention of having done the “Danse sacrale.” Most remarkably, Nijinsky wrote
Stravinsky on 24 March 1913, requesting the music for the “Danse sacrale” (see Vera
Stravinsky and Robert Craft 1978, 92–95). I trust van den Toorn’s argument that
Nijinsky would have used a four-hand arrangement of the piece that did not include
the “Danse sacrale” for almost all or all of these early rehearsals, because the full score
was only finished on 8 March 1913. (See van den Toorn 1987, 35–36.) Robert Craft
claims, however, that Nijinsky used a “sketch-score” of the “Danse sacrale” as early as
November 1912 (Craft 1988, 173). In view of the fact that his article consists of so
many erroneous facts and misplaced quotes, I can only take it as a complete fabrica-
tion on his part. (See also Taruskin 1988b, 385.) Concerning the extant manuscript
copies of Le Sacre, see Cyr 1982, 98–114. If Nijinsky started the “Danse sacrale” in win-
ter 1913, rather than in November 1912, then Millicent Hodson errs in assuming that
it was choreographed first, and that it formed the basis for the movement vocabulary
of the rest of the ballet. Hodson also claims that Irina Nijinska reported that Nijin-
ska rehearsed the part of the Chosen One with her brother by hearing the synopsis
of the ballet read aloud over and over again, and not by hearing the music. (See Hod-
son 1980, 43 and 1996, 167.) It is clear from many accounts that Roerich’s libretto
had a deep influence on how Nijinsky designed his ballet (see, for example, Nijinska
1992, 457–61). Nevertheless, I remain convinced that Nijinsky was not listening to a
synopsis, but rather to the music played by the rehearsal pianist when he created the
dance. See Rambert 1972, 56–57. For an accurate chronology, see Hill 2000, 26–34.
56. Taruskin comments (in reference to Whittall 1982) that it is “sentimental” to
identify with the Chosen One, or to find conflict or tragedy in her role. I am not sure
why he finds this sentimental. See Taruskin 1995, 20.
57. Hodson 1986, 67. She notes the similarity between this posture and the figures
on Russian totems, which Nijinsky probably became familiar with through Nicolas
104 tamara levitz

Roerich. Nijinsky wanted the dancers to achieve the concentrated focus of such
carved figures. This again shows his affinity for the “art plastique” being promoted
by his French contemporaries.
58. Acocella 1987, 65. Denby (1977, 18) commented in detail on Nijinsky’s
emphasis on the center of weight in his body, which allowed him to perform partic-
ularly meticulous movements. See also Kirstein 1976.
59. Description provided in Hargrave 1985, 93. It is important to note that Nijin-
sky expected the emotion of the dance to be communicated through movement, and
not through facial expressions. Dancers who showed emotion in their face infuriated
him (see Rambert 1972, 62). Edwin Denby (1977, 19–21) has called him a “classical”
dancer for this reason.
60. Garafola 1989, 72. Nijinsky’s sister believed that the Chosen One’s dance was
“his [Nijinsky’s] own dance, inspired by the music.” Nijinska 1992, 450.
61. Garafola 1999, 247. Burt Ramsey has offered valuable insight into Nijinsky’s
public role around 1912, and his homosexuality, in Ramsey 1995, 74–100.
62. Kopelson 1997, 190. This would partly explain Nijinsky’s violent reaction
to and intense anger over his sister’s news that she was pregnant and could not
dance the part. Nijinsky afterwards feared that he had been on the verge of killing
his sister’s husband at that moment. See Rambert 1972, 58; and Nijinska 1992,
63. Krasovskaya 1979, 238–39. She describes Nijinsky’s “sacrificial dance” based
on a letter from Bronislava Nijinska of 11 December 1967, and on a conversation with
Maria Piltz on 28 March 1968. Hodson has attempted to match Nijinska’s general
description to specific points in Stravinsky’s music in Nijinsky’s Crime against Grace. I
find this problematic for three reasons: (1) Nijinska’s account was given over fifty
years after the fact; (2) Nijinska did not dance the final part of the Chosen One; and
(3) her account is general and not accompanied with indications of how the move-
ments coordinated with the music.
64. Nijinsky 1995, 37. It is important to remember, however, that these comments
were written after Diaghilev and Nijinsky had broken contact, and thus do not reflect
the state of their relationship in 1912–13. Nevertheless, I believe they demonstrate
how remarkably Nijinsky and Stravinsky differed in their degree of empathy for the
victims of violence. Whereas Stravinsky loved bullfights, for example, they terrified
Nijinsky, who felt sorry for the tortured animals. See Nijinsky 1995, 43–44.
65. On the notion of representing corporeality through the fall, see Varilio 1994,
35–60, esp. 43–44.
66. In an earlier interview in the Pall Mall Gazette on 15 February 1913, Nijinsky
claimed that the dance had no human beings in it. This comment is frequently cited
in studies of the ballet. Note, however, that this remark was made before he com-
pleted work on the Chosen One’s dance. I believe that he probably started training
Nijinska as the Chosen One only around February 1913, in spite of reports that he
began the dance in November 1912. Nijinska gave birth in October 1913, which
means she would only have found out she was pregnant around March 1913. Surely
she had not been working on the dance for five months before finding out she was
pregnant. It is also not clear that Nijinsky even had the music for the “Danse sacrale”
before this time. See note 55.
the chosen one ’ s choice 105

67. Boulez shares Adorno’s opinion that Le Sacre failed in its form, development,
and harmony. See Boulez 1966, 142–45.
68. Boulez mocks the only visual realization of Le Sacre that he considers, namely
Walt Disney’s Fantasia. He remarks sarcastically that whereas Le Sacre was once the
object of scandal, it was now used for animated cartoons (Boulez 1966, 75). It is cul-
turally interesting to note that Boulez even saw Fantasia, let alone felt it worthy of
69. Boulez does not indicate which score he used, thereby bypassing the thorny
issue of Stravinsky’s revisions of Le Sacre. This is not surprising, in that the idea of a
score being revised would not have fit into his notion of what constituted the musi-
cal work. The rhythmic examples he uses in his article indicate that he was using the
1929 score or a copy thereof. On the issue of editions and revisions of Le Sacre, see
Cyr 1982, 89–148; Cyr 1986, 157–73; van den Toorn, “Sketches, Editions, Revisions,”
in van den Toorn 1987, 22–56; and Fink 1999b, 299–362.
70. Boulez 1966, 136.
71. Concerning the philosophical consequences of music theory’s use of two-
dimensional graphic representation in the twentieth century, see Gilmore 1995 and
Koozin 1999. Koozin makes the mistake of proposing three-dimensional represen-
tations that fail to depart from two-dimensional thinking.
72. As sketch studies became popular, the sketch emerges as a significant form of
visual representation in musical analysis. The sight of etchings, sketches, or scribbles
evoked the palpable presence of a real composer with tired fingers, broken pencils,
spilling ink, and the very real presence of pens, lead, paper, and other materials
required in order to compose. It is interesting that the body found its way back into
music studies in this way, even in a period that wanted nothing to do with it, and
which favored heightened intellectual rationality.
73. Van den Toorn 1987, 19 and all of chapter 2.
74. I am referring to this dance as it was reconstructed by Millicent Hodson for
the Joffrey Ballet in 1987. I refer only to gestures for which we have historical docu-
mentation, and thus avoid the issue of the validity of her reconstruction. She used the
following sources for her reconstruction: (1) Marie Rambert, Le Sacre du Printemps,
Piano Score for Four Hands, choreographic notes (1913), introduction (1967) (Lon-
don: Ballet Rambert Archives); (2) Nijinska’s letter about this solo to Vera
Krasovskaya in December 1967; published summary in Krasovskaya 1971, 440–42; (3)
Valentine Gross-Hugo’s drawings; (4) the reconstruction of the dance by Olga Stens
in France and by Nicholas Zverev (see Stanciu-Reiss 1957); (5) Stravinsky 1969. The
appendix consists of the notes. For a review of these sources, see Hodson 1987.
75. See Stravinsky 1969, appendix, 42. Stravinsky indicated that the Chosen One
should stay in this spot from rehearsal numbers 142 to 149.
76. Jann Pasler (1981) develops this thought in convincing detail. The scenery for
scene 2, which depicted a vast Slavic sky, enchanted rocks, and the magic mountain
of sacrifice, also contrasted sharply with the dance. See Garafola 1989, 67–68.
77. Nijinska 1992, 448–49; see also Stravinsky’s letter to Nicholas Roerich, 1(14)
December 1912, translated into English by Robert Craft in Stravinsky 1969, appen-
dix, 31.
78. Gabriele Brandstetter (1998, 48–49) argues that the circle structure in Le Sacre
106 tamara levitz

has the multiple function of shutting out the audience while also shutting it in, and
of acting as an index for the representation of ritual.
79. Taruskin (1996, 1:890) traces the roots of this dance to Herodotus’s The Per-
sian Wars. Stravinsky labels the dance this way in his sketchbook. He calls it a “wild
martial dance” in his letter to N. F. Findeizen, 2(15) December 1912, translated into
English by Robert Craft in Stravinsky 1969, appendix, 33.
80. Marie Rambert’s notes are given in Hodson 1996, 135–40.
81. Mary Wigman’s extensive drawings and notes for her choreography of Le Sacre
are kept in her archive at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin. These documents
include the 1926 piano reduction of Stravinsky’s work with her meticulous com-
ments, as well as extensive drawings. Wigman fought with Dore Hoyer over the Cho-
sen One’s dance, however, and left no indication in writing or images of how she envi-
sioned that part of the piece. See also Steinbeck 1987.
82. Stravinsky only later removed that indication because he thought string play-
ers would be too incompetent to play it that way. See van den Toorn 1987, 42–44. A
weightless, precise performance of these chords best embodies the motion of leap-
ing into the air, which both Nijinsky and Stravinsky envisioned. In spite of this,
Stravinsky was one of the few conductors ever to perform these chords that way. Most
conductors perform these chords with enough crashing intensity to stifle anybody’s
attempt at escape.
83. Nijinska, quoted in Hodson 1996, 166. Hodson associates this gesture with
cell A, but I believe she is mistaken, especially in view of Valentine Gross-Hugo’s draw-
ings. I find there are many errors in Hodson’s reconstruction, and in this book. (For
a highly insightful critique of Hodson’s reconstruction, see Acocella 1991.) Jacques
Rivières described this gesture as an “arm raised to heaven and waved straight above
her head in a gesture of appeal, threat, and protection” (Rivières 1947, 93). The Cho-
sen One learned this gesture from her tribe, who demonstrate it for her in the “Evo-
cation des ancêtres.” This fact lends support to Nijinska’s thesis that in her “Danse
sacrale,” the Chosen One is protecting the earth against the heavens, and that the
ancestors had taught her the gesture she needed to win that battle. Such an inter-
pretation makes the ancestors less hostile than they otherwise appear to be.
84. I am keenly aware of the dangers inherent in trying to analyze dance by cre-
ating a narrative out of individual gestures. Nicholas Cook warns against such
approaches, which can be equated with constructing the body as text. Cook prefers
to understand the body as “sound,” as a “site of resistance to text”: “Instead of seeing
the relationship between work and performance in terms of a transparent revelation
of underlying structure, as epitomized by the Schenkerian concept of performing
from the middleground, a variety of terms come into play which thematize the opac-
ity of the relationship: quotation, commentary, critique, parody, irony, or travesty, for
example” (Cook 2001). I, nevertheless, analyze the dancing body of the Chosen One
in this way, because I believe this is how Nijinsky, following Jaques-Dalcroze, under-
stood and conceived of it. I would not support such an analytical approach for all cho-
reographed works of music.
85. See Fink 1999b.
86. Nijinsky never allows the Chosen One to spin freely as Adorno and Taruskin
want her to do. When she spins from rehearsal numbers 164 to 173, her movement
the chosen one ’ s choice 107

is “desperate and ecstatic at the same time,” and when she spins again after rehearsal
no. 181, she spins with “feet almost on the points striking the ground like daggers,”
according to Valentine Gross-Hugo (Hodson 1996, 177; 191). Her spinning is also
always stopped or interrupted by the return of her refrain.
87. On the original scoring of this moment, see Fink 1999b.
88. Stravinsky to Ansermet, 30 January 1926, reprinted in Vera Stravinsky and
Robert Craft 1978, 513. Boris Asaf’yev (1982, 53–54) discusses the tension between
cells B and C. Remember that Boulez intuitively understood this moment (see note
89. There was much opposition to Jaques-Dalcroze’s approach to dance before
World War I. See Giertz 1975, 47–59. Opponents of Jaques-Dalcroze included
Claude Debussy, Rudolf Bode, and Hans Brandenburg. Adorno’s later interpreta-
tion of the dance movement of Le Sacre as mechanical may have resulted from his
knowledge of this body of criticism. This debate on mechanical versus conscious
dance also finds an analogy in the controversy over vitalist versus geometric inter-
pretations of the music of Le Sacre—a topic analyzed in Fink 1999b and, initially, in
Taruskin 1988a.
90. Nicholas Roerich, The Realm of Light (New York: New Era Library, 1931),
185–91; quoted in French in Hodson 1980, 41.
91. Krasovskaya 1979, 243–44. A large number of critics commented on the fact
that Piltz looked like she was being tortured in the “Danse sacrale.” This was not nec-
essarily Nijinsky’s original intention. See Bullard 1971 and Lesure 1980.
92. Brandstetter speaks of Le Sacre as “not only . . . an attack on the representative
code of the body in classical dance, but also . . . an affront against the norms of the
reigning body aesthetic in general” (Brandstetter 1988, 46).
93. Rivières 1947, 91. I think historians in general have tended to focus too exclu-
sively on the last few pages of Rivières’ extensive analysis (pp. 95–97).
94. Hodson erroneously indicates that these drawings were published in June
1913, at the time of the ballet’s premiere. She also uses drawings that were not actu-
ally ever published in Montjoie (Hodson 1996, 170). Many reprints of Gross-Hugo’s
actual drawing for Montjoie are included in Stravinsky’s archive, Paul Sacher Stiftung.
Gross-Hugo completed about twenty sketches of the Chosen One’s solo, and twenty-
five refined pictures of Piltz in the part. These drawings are kept in the Theatre Col-
lection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The collection also includes a
diary in which Gross-Hugo talks about her drawings. The pages of her sketchbooks
are detached and the original sequence is not intact. Marie Rambert found Gross-
Hugo’s drawings too Duncanesque and refined, and not as prehistoric as they should
be. (See Hodson 1980, 45 and 1987, 57). A large selection of these drawings is pub-
lished in Hugo 1971.
95. Hodson 1996, 171. This example is only one of many showing that Gross-
Hugo is not accurately depicting the movement as Marie Rambert described it in her
piano reduction of the piece.
96. Ibid., 183. In the better-known version of these drawings used by Millicent
Hodson, Gross-Hugo uses a different movement for this measure! See Hodson 1996,
97. Adair 1992, 210. See also Goldberg 1989 and Cody 1998.
108 tamara levitz

98. It would be interesting to study why this dance in particular has led to such
violent disagreements between dancers and choreographers—perhaps because
dancers seem to embrace it as an intense vehicle for their own, personal forms of
expression. Concerning Nijinsky’s original arguments with Stravinsky over Le Sacre,
see Marie Rambert 1972, 59.

Beethoven Antihero
Sex, Violence, and the Aesthetics of Failure,
or Listening to the Ninth Symphony
as Postmodern Sublime
robert fink

. . . the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally

explodes in the throttling, murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.
susan mcclary, “Getting Down Off the Beanstalk”

The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable
in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms . . .
jean-françois lyotard, The Postmodern Condition

A man in terror of impotence

or infertility, not knowing the difference
a man trying to tell something
howling from the climacteric
music of the entirely
isolated soul . . .
adrienne rich, “The Ninth
Symphony of Beethoven Understood
at Last as a Sexual Message”

one of the most misquoted musicologists in history

“She must surely be one of the most misquoted musicologists in history.” The
lament is Suzanne Cusick’s, on behalf of her feminist colleague Susan
McClary. The sobriquet appeared in a recently published essay assessing the
growth and prospects of a feminist musicology, in a section entitled “The Use
and Misuse of Feminine Endings” (Cusick 1999, 488, n. 30). By “misquoted”
Cusick meant that the passage of Beethoven criticism most often attributed
to the author of Feminine Endings (McClary 1991), the passage reproduced
above as the first of this chapter’s epigraphs, does not actually appear in that
book at all. The fact that a single book—worse, a single decontextualized,
110 robert fink

sensationalized, and inaccurately cited remark standing in for that book—

had come to stand for the entire complex project of feminist musicology
seemed to Cusick a singularly unfortunate, if not actively malevolent, state
of intellectual affairs.
And who would not agree, faced with this (sadly typical) kind of tabloid
Musicology has finally latched on to the post-modern marketing tool to beat
all others: reinterpretation. After all, it worked for literature, so why not for
classical music? . . . That’s right, music is merely an extension of gender and
politics . . . So what is that loud noise in the first movement of Beethoven’s
Ninth? Over to McClary, author of Feminine Endings: “The carefully prepared
cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throt-
tling, murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.”1

Yada, yada, yada. After the drubbings in the New York Times, the slashing
attacks from neo-conservative dinosaurs like Robert Bork and Roger Kim-
ball, the brutal caricatures of “postmodern radical feminist” musicology that
graced the pages of journals as divergent as U.S. News and World Report and
Lingua Franca—one might well ask: Wouldn’t it have been better for all of us
if Susan McClary’s gloss on the moment of recapitulation in the first move-
ment of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony had simply never been written? I
think this is Cusick’s wish—her discussion of Feminine Endings never men-
tions the Minnesota Composer’s Forum Newsletter, the 1987 source where
McClary actually did deploy her infamous metaphor. What thoughtful musi-
cologist (old or new) would not want to erase the thuggish reception those
few words unleashed—even at the cost of erasing the words themselves?
But Susan McClary did in fact consciously compare the effect of one of
Beethoven’s most famous passages to a failed rape; and I for one would hes-
itate before consigning her audacious image to critical oblivion. For it was
this stark passage, and no other, that reached out and slapped a young, some-
what disillusioned doctoral candidate upside the disciplinary head and set
him on the path that would eventually lead to a vocation in the “new” musi-
cology, and the writing of this determinedly celebratory essay. When, in
1988, I first heard McClary quoted on the Ninth, I had no feminist context
within which to appreciate her sexual politics. I had no context at all, hav-
ing read none of her work, when a renowned male musicologist dropped
that one fateful sentence into his subtly disparaging talk—and waited for the
inevitable snickering to begin.2
It did not occur to me then that McClary’s quote was an attack on
Beethoven himself, nor did I understand her words as the opening salvo in
a musicological gender war. I just thought she was reporting her own expe-
rience of listening to Beethoven. I want to recapture and argue strenuously
for this “beginner’s” reading of McClary in the argument to come.3 It now
beethoven antihero 111

seems to me that McClary had, in the course of formulating a feminist cri-

tique of Western tonality of which at the time I was totally unaware, hit upon
a singularly vivid image that concretized the pleasure and pain that await
when one moves beyond modernist structural hearing. In a flash, I intuited
that Susan McClary heard in Beethoven’s Ninth what I did: not the abstract
comforts of Hanslick’s “musically beautiful,” but an audible trace of what I
later came to recognize as Jean-François Lyotard’s postmodern sublime:

Modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one. It

allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but
the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer to the
reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure . . . The postmodern [sublime]
would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in pres-
entation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus
of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for
the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to
enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.
(Lyotard 1992, 148)

Deploying Lyotard’s trope of the postmodern as “sublime” will help me

justify the following extended discussion of McClary’s Beethoven criticism as
an investigation into postmodern listening; it will also motivate the struc-
turing of what follows into two dialectical parts, corresponding to the two
dialectically opposed moments of the sublime that Lyotard counterpoises in
the quote above.
To anticipate the overall trajectory of my argument: the first modernist
moment begins with the reaction to McClary’s rape image as an uncovering,
and a recovery, of painful (and previously unspeakable) content trapped
within a severely abstract form reified as “organic” and inevitable; we thus
rewrite Beethoven’s Ninth as an instance of the modern sublime. As Lyotard
himself notes, the roots of this modern sublime can be traced back into the
early Romantic era, as far back as Immanuel Kant’s justification of empty
abstraction—“negative presentation” of content—as the ultimate in sublim-
ity (1992, 146). The reception history of Beethoven’s Ninth shows that
McClary’s take on the first-movement recapitulation is quite typical of a
hermeneutic strategy I will dub with the quasi-neologism sublimating. An
entire line of male critics have grasped at metaphors of (often sexualized)
violence to situate this passage as a liminal case of the modern sublime, as
the painful-pleasurable moment where the discomfort of unspeakable con-
tent is held in check—just barely—by the comfort of comprehending a great
composer’s formal genius.
Thus my opening gambit will be to recontextualize McClary by linking
her to a hermeneutic tradition of sublimating description that predates
high-modernist formalism. But her rape image—if read with full attention
112 robert fink

to its kinesthetic specificity—encodes with aphoristic brutality the complex

and postmodern relation to form that is characteristic of Lyotard’s second,
postmodern moment of the sublime. The rape McClary describes is a fail-
ure, her antihero “unable to attain release.” In the second part of my essay,
I will argue this as a key formal insight into Beethoven’s “aesthetics of fail-
ure.” Identifying the moment of recapitulation as a failed rape will turn out
to be not a distraction from form, a deviation away from the “music itself”
into dodgy politics, but a powerful analytical key to just those formal ques-
tions it was thought to displace. McClary’s infamous remark adumbrates not
the “recognizably consistent,” reassuring formal logic of the modern sub-
lime, but the shattered illogic that “puts forward the unpresentable in [the
form of the] presentation itself”: the postmodern sublime. To listen to it
with her—to hear Beethoven’s failure as both sublime and postmodern—is
my goal.

moment one: the unspeakable content

(romantic and modern sublimity)
Violence, Failure, and “Beethoven’s demonic intentions”
It is remarkable how often the adjective erhabene, “sublime,” appears in nine-
teenth-century German descriptions of the first movement of Beethoven’s
Ninth. In fact, this moment of recapitulation could (and did) serve as a par-
adigmatic example of the Romantic musical sublime. Friedrich Michaelis,
synthesizing Kant and Burke, gave an influential definition of the musical
sublime in an 1805 article for the Berlin Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. As
summarized by Peter le Huray, Michaelis’s description of sublimity in music
could double as a description of the Ninth:

The music may well achieve sublime intensity . . . when notes are sustained for
unusually long periods of time and when the sheer volume of sound is shatter-
ingly intense, when the music’s progress is frequently interrupted, or when the
textures are so complex that the imagination is stretched to its limits in an
effort to follow what is going on. When we feel that we are poised over a bot-
tomless chasm, when the imagination encounters the limitless and the immeas-
urable, then the experience may be described as sublime. (le Huray 1979, 98)

We cannot credibly assert that Romantic critics did not appreciate con-
fusing, overpowering musical experiences like this one; abjection before the
sublime is one of the things they valued most about listening to Beethoven’s
music. Yet the rhetorical violence of his Ninth Symphony is extreme even
within the sublime, the built-in masochism of the aesthetic category harder
to ignore. We would do well to remember the physical bluntness of Edmund
Burke’s famous epigram: the beautiful is founded on pleasure, but the sub-
beethoven antihero 113

lime is founded on pain. Such pain may well underpin the increasingly neg-
ative metaphors, extending to war, catastrophe, and violent rape, that the
more erhabene moments of the Ninth have accumulated over time.
Though the Ninth is now the canonical masterwork of abstract instru-
mental music, a nagging hermeneutic anxiety quickly crystallized around
measures 301–15 of its first movement. The ff D major of the recapitulation
and its immediate aftermath have fascinated and troubled almost every
commentator since the middle of the nineteenth century. This was not
always so; early descriptions of the symphony concentrated on the famous
opening, the thematic content of the first movement’s exposition, and of
course discussed the propriety and success of the choral finale.4 Yet the pas-
sage has loomed increasingly large in criticism, interpretation, and analysis
of the Ninth, so that for many twentieth-century scholars it is the pivot of the
movement, if not the entire work. There is clearly something intrinsic to this
spot that has attracted increasing aesthetic attention, perhaps because it
combines to an extraordinary degree the “violence and signification” that,
in Joseph Kerman’s view, singled out Beethoven’s Fifth as the “paradigmatic
‘work of musical art’ for the nineteenth century” (1988, 484). That signify-
ing violence, whether acknowledged openly or not, seems to have drawn to
itself scholarly prose, both analytic and impressionistic.5
For the most part, hermeneutic approaches to this unexpected blast of
tonic major followed by tonal chaos define two (dialectically opposed)
strategies. The sublimating strategy, which attempts to focus on and interpret
its extremity, gives rise, dialectically, to the beautifying, which attempts to
deny or minimize any disturbing aspects, usually by exalting technical
description over exegesis. Beautifiers want to convince us that there is no
hermeneutic problem; they explain to us that the passage makes perfect for-
mal sense. Sublimators revel in the problem, and are often delighted to hint
through tone and imagery that the passage is problematic: that it is extreme,
overpowering, at the limits of musical discourse. Sometimes, they move
beyond the modern sublime—and anticipate postmodern hearing—as they
intimate that the Ninth does not make formal sense.
The distinction is neatly thematized in the first extended description of the
recapitulation, a remarkable passage in Robert Griepenkerl’s 1838 novel The
Music Festival, or the Beethovenians (Die Musikfest, oder die Beethovener). Years before
analysts and critics homed in on it, Griepenkerl described the exact moment
of recapitulation in impressive technical detail, as a moment of high drama:

“Crescendo! Sforzato! Every man for himself!” cried Vicarius, loudly slamming shut
the score he had been keenly following up until that point. And then began the
most sublime passage in the entire first movement. Pfeiffer saw in it the battle
between Old and New, the crucial gigantic and titanic battles of our times.
114 robert fink

Everyone attacked the open fifths in fortissimo, except the bassoons and
double basses, who once having achieved Fs refused to let it go; they held it out
in thirty-seconds against the mass of the orchestra hastening back into Chaos—
thus turning the entire passage, if you like, into a single first-inversion triad.
The previously-heard fifth-motives of the violins wandered fortissimo like angry
ghosts in and around the thunder of the drums, the blasts of the trumpets, and
the firmly anchored Fs of the basses. (Griepenkerl 1838)

The author’s voice already shows a beautifying-sublimating split.

Griepenkerl uses the precise musical language of the professional, and even
ventures on a reductive theoretical explanation: the whole passage is to be
understood as a prolongation of “a single first-inversion triad.” But his
description is tellingly interspersed with more outlandish phraseology—
bursts of supernatural metaphor that betray a perception of the uncanny
(“wandered like angry ghosts”) and the unintelligible (“the orchestra has-
tening back into Chaos”).
Next we hear the excited reactions of onlookers, as Griepenkerl surveys
representative aesthetic responses to this “most sublime passage in the entire
first movement”:
“This is no street brawl,” said Vicarius; “they are tearing off the granite tops
of mountain ranges and throwing them at each other, they’re scourging the
boiling sea into the bridal bed of the earth. And suns and moons are their
shields, fiery bolts of lightning their spears; out of their battle the dust of stars
whirls heavenward!”
“The theme, listen for the theme!” cried Adalbert.
“It’s stale, worn out,” mocked Vicarius. “Away with you, deciphered Beau-
ties! Your budding innocence is passé. Another Messiah for our century, say
I! —” (Griepenkerl 1838)

In the persons of Vicarius and Adalbert, sublimating and beautifying criti-

cism clash directly. Vicarius, overwhelmed, abandons himself to the experi-
ence. The sheer violent energy of the music seems to require a commensu-
rate hermeneutic excess, and he responds with a sublimely blasphemous
outpouring of eschatological imagery. What Vicarius is emphatically not
interested in purveying is theoretical explanation—he disdains “deciphered
Beauties” (“enträtselte Schöne”). He was the one who greeted this passage
not by diving into his score, but by slamming it shut with a gleeful, “Every
man for himself!”
Adalbert, the beautifier, attempts to reign Vicarius in; he wants to bring
the discussion back around to “the music itself,” to substitute analysis of for-
mal structure for rhapsodic Schwärmerei. Variations on Adalbert’s impas-
sioned cry for the purely musical (“The theme, listen for the theme!”) echo
down through the critical discourse on the Ninth; it was the battle cry of
Heinrich Schenker, and, in our day, Pieter C. van den Toorn. There will
beethoven antihero 115

always be a beautifier, someone who has kept his control, kept his score
firmly open, to tap the wild-eyed sublimator on the shoulder and point out
a thematic or formal connection. And if in 1838 it was Vicarius who ulti-
mately dominated the discussion, in the twentieth century it has been beau-
tifying criticism that has, until recently, had the last word.
Of course, there has always been a small and not particularly influential
minority who make an overt denial of any hermeneutic problem: they take
the D-major tutti at its “triumphant” face value. The most famous was prob-
ably Sir George Grove: “[the first theme] is now given with the fullest force
of the orchestra and the loudest clamour of the drum, and ending unmis-
takably in D major. Its purpose is accomplished, its mission fulfilled, its tri-
umph assured; no need now for concealment or hesitation!” (Grove 1884).
Grove’s bluff good humor was followed by the authors of many English-lan-
guage concert guides before Tovey (see below).
Another, vastly more influential group uses Adalbert’s more subtle beau-
tifying tactic—they look for the theme. This involves “hard” analysis: care-
fully avoiding emotional display, one presents the passage as a set of purely
technical-compositional conundrums to be unraveled. One of the first to do
this sort of thing was Hugo Riemann, in his Grundriß der Kompositionslehre
(Riemann 1889), but at the same time he allowed himself wild flights of sub-
limating description in less formal venues, such as program notes (see
below). Probably the first to undertake severely technical analysis of the
Ninth as an explicitly polemical act was Heinrich Schenker in his book-
length study of 1912—and it would not be unfair to say that ignoring all
questions of meaning in Beethoven’s Ninth has remained a polemical act to
this day.
Schenker’s 300-page study, undertaken years before the transcendental
concept of the Ursatz heated up his prose, is so matter-of-fact and detailed as
to be almost unreadable at length. He approaches measures 301–15 as a tra-
ditional Stufentheorist, providing a careful linear rationalization of its root
succession. An “ideal” Is3–sIV–V bass progression in D minor explicitly disci-
plines Schenker’s hearing of the passage (see Example 1b, below). He uses
it to dismiss any implication of D major other than as a chromatically-altered
tonic (V/iv), and to give “organic necessity” (organische Notwendigkeit) to the
sudden and apparently arbitrary appearance of the chord Bf–D–F–Af. In
general, Schenker prefers this complex chromatic root progression to the
looser concept of “mode mixture” between D major and D minor, a dialec-
tic all too susceptible to promiscuous interpretation in terms of joy-pain, tri-
umph-defeat and so on. As he points out, “[in the context of this functional
progression] the fundamental color change gains a sort of causality that
mode mixture totally fails to give” (“enthält doch das chroma prinzipiell
eben eine Art von Kausalität, wie sie der Mischung durchaus fehlt”; p. 123).
Schenker’s rigidly neutral tone, and his overt use of analysis to control and
116 robert fink

rationalize this unruly passage was, of course, a reaction against previous

excesses by sublimating critics, who gave themselves up to its extremity and
found themselves driven to wild extravagances of emotive description.6 A
large and perhaps justifiable part of his impatience with these “analyses” was
the paucity of actual formal analysis—their general failure to explain the
music on its own terms. But if one rereads these accounts on their own terms,
it becomes clear that Schenker was reacting against a presence, and not just
an absence. His completely dispassionate analytical treatment of the reca-
pitulation was an attempt to counter the tales of violence and confusion that
his predecessors and colleagues had been spinning about this passage all
Most of the patterns of imagery that dominate evocative description of
measures 301–15 are already present in the most influential nineteenth-cen-
tury account, that of A. B. Marx (Beethoven Leben und Schaffen, 1859). Marx
breathlessly describes the entire passage in one sweeping sentence; he points
out the physical extremity of the orchestral setting, establishing the storm
metaphor that will be copied by almost every later commentator: the “shriek
of the full winds”; the “unbearable thunder-crashes of the timpani” (“aushal-
lenden Schrei aller Bläser”; “unaufhörlichen Donnerpochen der Pauken”).7
But Marx did not just find this passage loud; he also found it irrational,
strange, even uncanny—images he condensed into a characteristically
Romantic evocation of the supernatural, from Faust. Here is Marx’s take on
the troublesome three chords (D6–Bf7–d6) that Schenker tried so valiantly to
endow with root progression and “organic necessity”:

Now the sovereignty of this idea is fully established . . . it stands on Fs–A–D . . .

for twelve long measures (immovable like a terrifying specter, like the gloomily
flaming Earth-Spirit that stood before Faust, which he conjured up but could
not withstand)—until in the twelfth measure—again at the last moment, the
last eighth-note—it turns first to E-flat and three bars later to the tonic, to D
minor, to conclude the opening period. Conclude?—that is not within the
power of this troubled Giant-Spirit.8

Wallowing in the syntactic disruption that theorists would later explain away,
Marx foregrounds irrationality and incoherence—the “unnatural” persis-
tence of frozen D major and the sudden, offbeat shift to a seemingly unre-
lated key. Note in particular the melodramatic reference to the apparition
of the Erdgeist in Goethe’s Faust, scene 1. (This is the kind of thing that drove
Schenker crazy.) In the poem, Faust calls up a figure of raw and elemental
power that overwhelms his intellect and disappears as abruptly and arbitrar-
ily as it came.9
Marx’s “terrifying specter” (Schreckensphantom) is a generational descen-
dant of the “angry ghosts” (zürnende Schatten) that appeared in Griepenkerl’s
1838 description, of which Marx may well have been aware. But the
beethoven antihero 117

hermeneutic gambit of reading Beethoven’s Ninth through Goethe’s Faust is

probably a direct steal from Richard Wagner and the now-famous program
he used to prepare the Dresden audience for his 1846 benefit performance
of the work. Wagner systematically appropriated lines from Faust to con-
struct an emotional program for the entire symphony. Although he makes
no direct reference to the recapitulation as such, he links the movement’s
main theme to a line from Faust, and depicts its “uncanny” first appearance
in language strikingly similar to Marx’s invocation of the Erdgeist:
The great chief theme, which steps before us at one stride, naked and power-
ful, as if from behind an uncanny and spectral shroud [wie aus einem unheimlich
bergenden Schleier nackt und mächtig heraustritt], might perhaps be translated,
without violence to the spirit of the whole tone poem, by Goethe’s words: Ent-
behren sollst du! / Sollst entbehren! | Go wanting, shalt thou! Shalt go wanting!
(Wagner 1846, 247)

The interpretive link between Beethoven’s Ninth and Goethe’s Faust was
to prove immensely attractive to the critical descendants of Vicarius. In tra-
versing the discourse around this work, one quickly learns to read any men-
tion of Faust as an overt or covert sublimating gesture. But the nineteenth-
century predilection for Faustian metaphor at the moment of recapitulation
also betrays a covert fear that the passage, exciting as it, may go a little too
far. Or perhaps it is exciting just because it goes too far. After all, isn’t the fig-
ure of Faust one of the archetypal human symbols of the pleasures and per-
ils of overreaching genius? Did Beethoven transgress here?
Most significant in this context is Marx’s last observation (“Conclude?—
that is not within the power of this troubled Giant-Spirit”), which begins to
hint that the passage is to be heard as a dramatic mimesis of formal and har-
monic failure. The first theme, though it has achieved provisional “sover-
eignty” in D major, does not have the power to “conclude,” that is, to cadence,
in any convincing way. In direct opposition to Schenker, whose chromati-
cized root progression provides a way of hearing (“eine Art von Kausalität”)
that allows this chord sequence to succeed, Marx’s account simply accepts
the momentary sense of mystification and failed progression.10
Corroborative evidence can be adduced from Wagner’s 1846 description
of the emotional progression within the movement as a whole: “Thus force,
revolt, defiance, yearning, hope, near-success, fresh loss, new quest, repeated
struggle, make out the elements of ceaseless motion in this wondrous
piece . . .” (p. 247). Map this progression of emotional states onto sonata
form, and it appears that the moment of recapitulation and its aftermath cor-
respond to “near-success” (Fast-Erreichen) and “fresh loss” (neues Verschwinden)
respectively. One might well ask why this passage only rates as a near success:
could it be the failure to cadence—a purely formal failure—that Wagner is
118 robert fink

Through the “hermeneutic analyses” in Kretzschmar’s (1886) immensely

popular Führer durch den Konzertsaal, an echo of Wagner’s and Marx’s impres-
sions received the widest possible dissemination. Kretzschmar’s discussion of
the music itself is exhausted by mention of the thirty-eight-measure ff tim-
pani roll on D and the violence of strings and winds that crash against each
other (“heftig und wild gegeneinander angehen”; p. 244), but he ends with
a fascinating variation on Marx’s reference to Goethe. In this version it is
explicitly the composer of the Ninth himself who plays the overreaching
Faust: “the means of musical art hardly seem to suffice to carry out
Beethoven’s demonic intentions” (“die Mittel der musikalischen Kunst den
dämonischen Intentionen Beethovens kaum zu genügen scheinen”; p. 244).
Kretzschmar, like Marx, implies that the passage shows compositional
strain—that it is flirting with unintelligibility, if not actual failure to make
sense. Even more striking is how the violence and confusion of the music
feed directly back into the image of the “demonic” composer: Beethoven
Hero has already begun his transformation into violent Antihero.
A survey of later critical responses to measures 301–15 reveals a continu-
ing redeployment of the same group of images and observations. Hugo Rie-
mann, in an enthusiastic program note from the late 1880s, paraphrases
Wagner, complete with extensive quotes from Faust, and then describes the
moment of recapitulation in a single wild sentence that takes over Kret-
zschmar’s demonic composer while upping the ante on Marx from tempest
to apocalypse: “all the sections of the orchestra break loose in a wild battle
amongst themselves, while the timpani pound out their D in a fearsome
thirty-eight-measure-long crescendo as if the world itself was coming to an
end—as if the strongest orchestral means would not suffice to depict the
overwhelming, demonic fantasy of the Master’s creative impulse!”11
Gustave Ernest describes the D-major fortissimo as “like a terrifying
specter” (“wie ein Schreckgespenst”; Ernest 1920, 400). Karl Nef, in a pop-
ular book on the Beethoven symphonies, quotes A. B. Marx directly, makes
the by-now obligatory storm metaphor, and calls the return a “catastrophe”
(Nef 1927, 269–70). Olin Downes elaborated the storm image further (“over
roaring drums, fragments of the great theme hurtle together and flash and
splinter, as lightning might strike a mountain gorge”; Downes 1935, 83),
while Romain Rolland, a second Vicarius, carried it again to the apocalyptic
This is the paroxysm of the tempest—the three apparitions of God on Sinai (as
one might be allowed to characterize the great motive of falling fifths) totally
surrounded by lightning and thunder. But for the first time the All-Mighty
speaks in the major, over the rumbling of the timpani, so like a cannonade.
Then brusquely, by means of one of those chromatic “lighting changes,” over
B-flat and by way of A-flat and then A natural, it returns to its original D minor,
which the triplet eighths of the timpani never cease to reaffirm. We are at the
beethoven antihero 119

heart of the hurricane. Masses of sound collide violently. The winds set them-
selves up in contrapuntal opposition to the strings; and the lightning bolts
intertwine, both from the heights and depths.12

It was Donald Tovey who brought this predominantly Continental critical

matrix into the mainstream of Anglo-American analytic criticism. (See Cook
1993, 65–67 for a short tracing of English reactions to this spot.) Like Nef,
Tovey calls the recapitulation “catastrophic” and finds Grove’s triumphant
major tonic “very terrible.” Tovey provides his own extremely influential,
twentieth-century twist on the prevailing storm imagery, turning it into a
tempest in outer space: “instead of a distant nebula, we see the heavens on
fire” (Tovey 1935, 18). This incandescent image might well remind one of
the “darkly-flaming” Earth-Spirit; as Nicholas Cook points out, Tovey is
largely responsible in the English-speaking world for turning the imperialist
triumph of Grove’s account into something “threatening, destructive, inhu-
man” (Cook 1993, 66).13
As German-language criticism approaches the present day, the critical
tone becomes more abstract; Riezler, much influenced by Schenker, seems
to take a theoretically detached attitude toward the fateful chord progression
(though he gives us little analytic detail). He sees it as not a catastrophe, but
a clever piece of compositional craft: “the reprise begins . . . over a first-inver-
sion D-major chord . . . from which the following D minor is derived with the
greatest subtlety” (“die Reprise beginnt . . . über dem . . . Dur-Sextakkord,
von dem aus mit höchster Kunst . . . das erforderliche d-moll gewonnen
wird.”; Riezler 1936, 218). Adorno’s description of the formal struggles of the
musical subject in late Beethoven appear to influence the terms in which
later German critics transcendentalize the violent struggle of this spot; in the
view of Wilhelm Sauer, for whom this moment is the “flashpoint” (Bren-
npunkt) and the “heart” (Herzstuck) of the entire movement, what is at stake
is nothing less than man’s existential predicament: “What is achieved here is
an amalgamation of the struggles of all men, all peoples, all mankind from
the point of view of the eternal law, the heavenly order-of-things. The basic
idea of the first movement is the universal wrestling of the divisiveness and mul-
tiplicity of Life toward heavenly harmony.”14
The physical battle described by earlier auditors has been raised—subli-
mated?—to the more rarified level of “World-Tragedy,” but it rages in “mon-
strous earnest” (ungeheuren Ernst) nonetheless.15

Sex, Violence, and the “murderous rage of a rapist

incapable of attaining release”
It was left for Susan McClary to reacquaint the late twentieth century with
just how dangerously sublime, how physically threatening, this music once
120 robert fink

sounded, before the total ascendancy of beautifying criticism. The present

survey of the Ninth’s rather disreputable reception history should mute the
theatrical howls of astonishment that have dogged McClary’s “outrageous”
interpretation of the Ninth. Once aware of its parallels in tone, impression,
and even imagery with an entire line of sublimating male critics, it is much
harder to dismiss her narrative of desire, frustration, and violence as the
product of a hysterical (not historical) imagination.16
But for a professional musicologist to hear Beethoven as transgressively
violent in 1987 was to swim against an overwhelming discursive tide. Beau-
tifying—the use of formalist analysis and the ideology of absolute music to
neaten things up, to construct a cordon sanitaire around cherished works of
music—has become the default interpretive strategy for canonic music.17
Few respectable music scholars today would dare implicate themselves in the
hermeneutic promiscuity, the enthusiastic rooting around for extra-musical
imagery to communicate their subjective response to musical events, that
solid nineteenth-century citizens like Marx and Riemann allowed themselves
as a matter of course. Sublimating criticism survives only in sublimated form,
where nothing is at stake but the clash of abstract nouns; or as a detached
attempt to reconstruct the hermeneutics of earlier, more analytically inno-
cent times (Treitler 1989, 30–33).
Swimming against the formalist tide is a familiar position for McClary; she
has consistently been impatient with academic musicology’s attempts to nor-
malize disturbing musical constructions through grim adherence to struc-
tural hearing: “The combination of intense attraction and fear of the irra-
tional or of the sensual creates a strange set of priorities: to seize the objects
that are most profoundly disturbing and to try to explain away—through
extensive verbalizing and theorizing—that which caused the disturbance”
(McClary and Walser 1990, 286).
McClary’s original take on the first-movement recapitulation of the Ninth
was actually an aside within this more general critique of formalist analysis:
“For most of the history of post-Renaissance Western music and in virtually
all of its critical literature, the sexual dimensions of its mechanisms have
been shamelessly exploited and yet consistently denied . . . the climax-prin-
ciple has been transcendentalized to the status of a value-free universal of
form” (McClary 1987, 12). Beethoven is the perfect counterexample, the
composer who realizes these climax mechanisms with such blatant violence
(McClary’s infamous “pelvic pounding”) that the “ongoing academic strug-
gle to control music objectively” becomes absurd: “the musicologist must
silence music, deny that it has meaning, and impose theoretical closure on
this discourse that often provokes far more than it can contain” (23).
McClary was not alone in using Beethovenian extremity to uncover aca-
demic defense mechanisms: the very next year Joseph Kerman argued that
Schenkerian organicism was a uniquely attractive alternative for those who
beethoven antihero 121

couldn’t take the physical violence of the Fifth (Kerman 1988); a year after
that, Richard Taruskin lambasted pseudo-historical theses about perfor-
mance practice that allowed performers to resist the unfashionably “cosmic”
idealism of the Ninth (Taruskin 1989).
But—perhaps inevitably—McClary’s Beethoven-based feminist criticism
was read as a feminist criticism of Beethoven, and it struck a painful nerve.
That first tangential aside in the Minnesota Composer’s Forum Newsletter caused
such furor that when the essay was reprinted in book form (McClary 1991)
she evidently felt it necessary to expand her discussion and explain some of
the structural assumptions that gave rise to her earlier impressionistic
account. The general tone of this second description is quite controlled.
McClary situates the passage as the climactic, “horrifyingly violent” moment
in an Adorno-esque conflict between the musical subject (the first theme)
and the pressures of a tonal narrative that relentlessly threatens its individu-

But for the subject of the Ninth, to return to the beginning is to actually regress
to a point further back than its own conscious beginnings: it is to be dissolved
back into the undifferentiated state from which it originally emerged. And if
its hard-won identity means anything, the subject cannot accept such dissolu-
tion, even if it is toward that conventional moment of re-entry that the whole
background structure of the movement has inexorably driven. (1991, 128)

There is a clear—and perhaps unexpected, given McClary’s reputation—res-

onance here with the sternly philosophic, patriarchal view represented by
German critics like Adorno and Sauer, in which this moment represents the
tragic, doomed struggle of individual subjectivity with Society, Fate, or the
principles of Eternal Law.
The 1991 description also echoes significant details of many earlier
accounts. McClary, like Wagner, Marx, and Riemann, even invokes Goethe’s
Faust (“Verweile nur, du bist so schön,” in reference to the slow movement).
Marx’s electrical storm and Tovey’s supernova/air raid now appear in late
twentieth-century guise, as a grim science-fiction battle in space: “the subject
. . . finds itself in the throes of the initial void while refusing to relent: the
entire first key area in the recapitulation is pockmarked with explosions”
(1991, 129).
Yet there is something that does appear to be quite new in McClary’s crit-
ical response; as a woman, she is much more sensitive to the repressed libid-
inal implications of this violent struggle. In 1991 she speaks of the “juxtapo-
sition of desire and unspeakable violence”; in 1987 this juxtaposition was at
the center of her description:

The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the
most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated,
122 robert fink

damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling, murderous rage of a rapist
incapable of attaining release. The ‘triumphal’ end of the symphony—in which
promised cadences repeatedly are withheld at the last moment—finally simply
forces closure by bludgeoning the cadence and the piece to death. (McClary
1987, 12–13—emphasis mine, following that of posterity)

This image of “Beethoven the rapist” is, of course, painful in the extreme—
and scandalizing to many readers. But if we examine the rape image in light
of the descriptions of earlier sublimating critics, we can see its origin:
McClary makes exactly the same imaginative cathexis as Marx, Kretzschmar,
et al.—but she reinterprets the violent, confusing, overpowering physicality
of the experience from her female subject position.
The inherent sadomasochism of the sublime now takes on a new, threat-
ening aspect. When Beethoven’s “demonic intentions” (Kretzschmar) and
his “overwhelming demonic fantasies” (Riemann) are redirected, when the
relation between the masculine composer and the masculine critic is
replaced by that between a masculine composer and a feminine critic—what
other gendered image carries as much force as rape?

The pain suffered by the imagination in judgments upon the sublime has lead
some critics of Kant to denounce the tyranny of reason, to which the imagina-
tion submits itself in judgments upon the sublime. Undoubtedly, Kant’s refer-
ences in this context to subjection (Unterwerfung), violence (Gewalt), depriva-
tion (Emphasis Beraubung), and sacrifice (Aufopferung), encourage such an
interpretation. The notion of Beraubung Emphasisis particularly significant
here, since in addition to its usual meaning of “being robbed,” it can also sug-
gest rape.18

Push just a little bit on Marx’s 1859 description and sexual violence is
exactly what you will get. As we have seen, it was Marx who first linked
Beethoven’s recapitulation to a specific moment in Goethe’s Faust, the
apparition of the Erdgeist. For fin-de-siècle playwright Frank Wedekind, this
“Earth-Spirit” was a frankly sexual being, a fact so self-evident that he could
appropriate it as just another name for Lulu, his avatar of sexual destruction.
(The first published part of Wedekind’s “Lulu-play” was called simply
Erdgeist.19) The scene Marx recalls reads easily as a barely-disguised episode
of homosexual rape, as Faust evokes the (at that point male) Earth-Spirit in
a flood of feminized, sexualized longing:

Reveal yourself!
Ha! How my heart is gored
By never felt urges,
And my whole body surges—
My heart is yours; yours, too am I.
You must. You must. Though I should have to die.
beethoven antihero 123

The swooning language is that of the bodice-ripping romance novel—or of

Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs. The imperious Earth-Spirit is quite ready to
play along, too: “Could it be you who at my breath’s slight shiver / Are to the
depths of life aquiver, / A miserably writhing worm?”20 As Faust grovels on
the floor in masochistic ecstasy, one might ask—at what peril does a woman
enter into that kind of scene?
A specific concordance of detail may cement the point. In 1846, Wag-
ner—who gave us that image of the first theme striding onstage, “naked [!]
and powerful”—reported that he thought he saw two powerful wrestlers in a
clinch right around this spot (“wir zwei mächtige Ringer zu erblicken
glauben”; p. 247). McClary in 1991 echoes the image, postulating that we
consider composers like Beethoven, who “push mechanisms of frustration to
the limit” as “more serious, more virile”—“they don’t pull punches, they go all
the way to the mat” (p. 127). Take those two (male) wrestlers on the mat, and
simply replace one of them with a woman, and ask yourself honestly what it
is you think you see.
Let me stop here to draw the obvious conclusion: those who attack
McClary for unacceptably stretching the limits of interpretation around the
Ninth Symphony must rely on a biased, historically unsupportable reading
of Beethoven reception that ignores reams of nineteenth-century sublimat-
ing description. Accepting her rape metaphor does not drop one into a bad
postmodern episteme where “anything goes.” Nor must one assume, as does
Pieter C. van den Toorn, that only “unrelated personal animosity . . . fanned
by an aversion for male sexuality” (van den Toorn 1995, 40) could lead her
to invoke sexual violence when confronted with this music. Determinedly
unaware of a coherent tradition of glossing this moment with a narrow range
of highly-charged images, van den Toorn finds any metaphorical interpre-
tation of its physical extremity as good (or as bad) as any other: “[there is]
no reason to suppose ‘pelvic pounding’ rather than drunkenness, boister-
ousness, laughter, athletic exercise, aerobic dancing, or the like” (41). In
response, I can only report that I have found no accounts in the literature
analogizing this particular recapitulation as cheerful and healthy aerobic
exercise; on the other hand, there are numerous accounts that evoke frus-
tration, irrationality, physical violence, and pain. Further, one of the most
popular interpretive gambits—the claim that Beethoven had conjured an
uncontrollable musical Erdgeist out of his “demonic” Faustian fantasies—had
already brought a strong undertone of transgressive sexual desire to the dis-
course as early as 1859.
Schenker pugnaciously claimed that his beautifying explanations had for
the first time deciphered the Ninth in terms of its “true content”—by which
he meant, paradoxically, the organic necessity of its form —a modernist tri-
umph that would, in time, make all other hermeneutic strategies obsolete.
And it did, for a while. Academic musicologists forgot what Schenker him-
124 robert fink

self was painfully aware of: that other possessors of the Y chromosome,
respected critics like Marx, Riemann, and Kretschmar, had previously expe-
rienced Beethoven’s Ninth not only as prolongations and scale steps, but as
“the overwhelming, demonic fantasy of the Master’s creative impulse.” Out
of that collective fantasy they constructed not only Beethoven Hero, the man
who freed music, but Beethoven Antihero, the Faustian purveyor of sublime
eroticized violence. In the discourse around the Ninth, McClary is hardly out-
side the pale, and to dismiss her as a man-hating feminist (see below) is to
repress large swaths of reception history. When it comes to sublimating crit-
icism, she is just one of the guys.
And yet, for all its continuities in tone and imagery with a long line of
male accounts, the value judgment implied by McClary’s feminist critique
(yet not overtly levied within it, I hasten to add) does appear to open up a
radically new and negative hermeneutic, at least within high art music criti-
cism. Where male critics felt only masochistic pleasure, McClary allows for
the possibility of dread.

(Not Listening to the) Sex, Violence, and Failure:

“The theme, look for the theme!”
Lyotard asserts, paradoxically, that the postmodern actually precedes the
modern: “Postmodernism . . . is not modernism at its end but in the nascent
state, and this state is constant” (1992, 146). The reception history of the
Ninth validates this seeming oxymoron quite precisely. The proto-postmod-
ernist hermeneutic excess of old-fashioned Romanticism, “modernism in
the nascent state,” gives rise dialectically to full-blown modernist criticism;
sublimating criticism begets beautifying. But the postmodern moment
within the modern is constant; it does not disappear, and whenever it reap-
pears, as in the work of McClary, it precipitates a violent high-modernist
reaction. Schenker was quite brutal in his dismissal of Riemann and
Kretschmar (“their complete unproductivity in all directions—that is,
toward both interpretation and performance—must be affirmed”; Schenker
1992, 20), but his rhetoric pales in comparison with what Susan McClary has
had to take from Pieter van den Toorn: “Fanned by an aversion for male sex-
uality, which is depicted as something brutal and contemptible, irrelevancies
are being read into the music” (1991, 293).
That’s just plain nasty. (To van den Toorn’s credit, the above sentence
does not reappear in his 1995 book.) But behind the personal animosity is a
familiar beautifying strategy: like Schenker, van den Toorn wants to refocus
attention away from “irrelevancies” and onto the formal specificity of the
music itself. He is confident that the two can have no intersection, that musi-
cal detail and sexual politics cannot mix:
beethoven antihero 125

Drawn into greater and more explicit detail, the one side could only disappoint
the other, become the distraction of the other. It would be diminished,
reduced to a form of silliness. This happens with McClary’s analysis of the
Ninth . . . additional detail undermines the alleged relationship between
music and sex or sexual politics; the two sides are pulled further apart. (van
den Toorn 1995, 36)

If all that was at stake was the acknowledgment within the Ninth of the
romantic-modern sublime, of unpresentable content mediated by the power
of formal presentation, we might attempt to make a separate peace with van
den Toorn. Lyotard’s conception of the modern sublime does allow for a
kind of appreciation that, moving away from a sense of powerlessness and
pain, identifies with the intelligence that empowers a composer like
Beethoven to present the unpresentable through formal abstraction: “the
emphasis can be placed on the increase of being and the jubilation which
results from the invention of new rules of the game” (1992, 147). In other
words: one can beautify the sublime, one can “look for the theme.”
But what if one reads McClary’s failed rapist as an avatar of the presence
within Beethoven’s Ninth of the postmodern sublime, of the traumatic
moment where the unpresentable breaks through into presentation itself?
In that case beautifying criticism’s defensive focus on formal innovation
(“new rules of the game”) would provide little protection, since the collapse
of the masterwork’s “organic” form would be precisely the issue. But to grasp
the totality of that collapse, we must take up van den Toorn’s challenge to
work the rape metaphor deeply into the detail of Beethoven’s music, the
detail he so confidently assumes will make a mockery of it, that he assumes
is unproblematically on “his” side.
How then to unravel the confusing welter of details at measures 301–15
of the first movement of the Ninth?
Most critics look to the bass of this passage: they are trying to come to terms
with an essential failure of functional root progression at a pivotal moment
in the harmonic drama. The dynamics of sonata form demand a major har-
monic arrival on the home tonic at this point: if not a perfect V–I closure, at
least some easily recognizable transformation. The general consensus is that
measures 295–301 do not provide that closure: the dominant is too weak and
abrupt, and the first-inversion major tonic too unstable for such an important
formal juncture. Indeed, the Fs in the bass of the tonic triad at measure 301
introduces another, conflicting harmonic imperative, for it sounds very much
like a leading tone to G minor. Thus as we wait for the immobile D major to
move in measures 301–12, expectation builds for the basic cadential pro-
gression that will neatly resolve both local and global harmonic needs:
I6–iv–V–i, as in example 4.1a. This tonic–predominant–dominant–tonic is the
126 robert fink

Example 4.1 “Underlying” root progression for Beethoven, Ninth Symphony I,

mm. 315–30.

a. “ideal” root progression

! Yc A A A A c

# Yc W A A A
A c

∏ I6 iv V i

b. “raised IV”—Riemann, Schenker


# Yc W A WA A A c

∏ I6 ∏ iv7 V i6

c.“German 6th”—Treitler, van den Toorn

! Yc A A A A
+6 - - 8
# WA A
Yc C A A
∏ I6 ÁG6Ë V6 V53 i6

“ideal-type” background progression from which most analysts have tried to

derive what actually goes on at measures 312–15. The older, scale-step theo-
rists (Riemann 1889, Schenker 1912) thus explain Bf–D–F–Af as a subdomi-
nant with a raised root, in first inversion (siv64), which leads to an elided root-
position dominant and thence back to the tonic (ex. 4.1b). More recent
analysts (Treitler 1980, 1982; van den Toorn 1991) do not feel obligated to
ascribe root function to every triad; they account for Bf–D–F–Af as a linear
chord—specifically a German augmented-sixth (G6) that functions as an
exotic predominant replacement for iv. As in the earlier analyses, the root
position V is elided—as well as the V64 that would normally precede it (ex. 4.1c).
The problem with these explanations is that when one actually listens to
the passage, neither really makes sense of Beethoven’s realization. Explaining
Bf–D–F–Af as a linear-generated German sixth may seem more plausible
than sophistically claiming a chord built on the sharp fourth scale degree is
a functional “subdominant”; but it raises another, equally intractable prob-
lem. If the functionality of “siv6” is destroyed by its chromatic adulteration,
beethoven antihero 127

the intelligibility of the “German sixth” is equally damaged by Beethoven’s

refusal to carry out its linear implications. It is not so much that neither the
Gs ( = Af) nor the Bf of the G6 are approached by step (G6 usually provides a
chromatic transition between iv and V, not a complete replacement of iv),
but that the augmented-sixth interval is not allowed to resolve to an octave:
Gs moves to A, but the bass Bf does not progress to A, leaping instead down
to F.21 The distinguishing sound of a “functional” G6, the chromatic approach
to the dominant, as represented by the octave on scale degree 5, is totally lost.
This is the point at which a critic with sublimating tendencies throws up
his hands and begins talking about “Beethoven’s demonic intentions.” But it
is possible to go much further in the attempt to beautify this progression;
one of the most extensive clean-up efforts was undertaken by van den Toorn
to rebut McClary’s reading. Van den Toorn admits that the G6 in measure
312 is “from the standpoint of the voice-leading in the bass, approached and
resolved in a highly unorthodox manner.” But he immediately moves to min-
imize the problem: “Yet it should be noted that omissions of this kind occur
elsewhere in Beethoven’s music. . . . Indeed, shortchanging the counter-
point of this cadential cliché, circumventing its stylistic redundancy with
inflections of a more immediately individual or contextual character, is fairly
common in nineteenth-century music.” The beautifying rhetorical strategy
is clear: the traditional G6–V64–V–I is a “cadential cliché,” worn out, used
up—it should be so familiar to us (“stylistically redundant”) that Beethoven
can disrupt it freely without any danger of our failing to comprehend. The
shift in perspective removes any sense of danger from the passage: instead
of a dramatic gesture distorted into menacing opacity, we are asked to con-
sider a boring platitude livened up by a bit of compositional play.
To buttress his analysis, van den Toorn points out two spots later in the
Ninth, as well as famous passages in Brahms and Schubert, where a G6–I
cadence is presented with the root-position V either delayed or elided alto-
gether. But all these examples postdate the passage in question, so their
retroactive explanatory relevance to this particular spot seems somewhat
More crucially, not one of van den Toorn’s analogous passages is actually
as fundamental a linear “shortchanging” of the G6 cadence as Beethoven’s
mangled progression at measures 312–13. The difference is small, but pro-
found: it is true that neither Beethoven or his contemporaries felt that there
was anything wrong with going directly from a G6 to a tonic triad—as long
as the tonic was in 64 position, so that the f6 in the bass could progress cor-
rectly, falling a half-step to the dominant of the local key. This “tonic 64” at the
cadence functions as a dominant. If the composer then chooses not to
resolve the 64, the chord will eventually progress (or perhaps just metamor-
phose) directly into a root-position tonic; the resulting “V–I” bass progres-
sion is strong enough to make good the omission in the upper voices. This
128 robert fink

is in fact the case in every one of van den Toorn’s counterexamples. But, as
I pointed out above, the single most disruptive fact about measures 312–13
is that the G6 “resolves” not to a common dominant substitute, but to an
extremely uncommon first-inversion tonic, forcing the Bf in the bass not to
A, but to F. That is why Beethoven can keep the tonic D pedal sounding in
the timpani underneath this G6 and its resolution, underscoring the fact that
there is actually no dominant functionality in the passage at all. This is, to my
mind, the difference between “shortchanging a cadential cliché” and a much
more radical compositional gesture: destroying any sense of comprehensi-
ble cadential syntax. Van den Toorn’s comparisons covertly beautify: they put
back in the structural dominant that Beethoven so disruptively left out.
But identifying the “deviation” (however extreme) is merely the first step;
as van den Toorn quite rightly points out, the focus of analysis should be the
significance of the deviation, how it functions in a particular context. In fact,
of course, analysis creates that context, and this van den Toorn now proceeds
to do. He rationalizes the irregular resolution of Bf by pointing out that it is
part of a local motivic relationship: the F–Bf–F in the bass is to be heard as
an imitation of the preceding D–A–D in the strings, and thus, we assume, a
thematic echo of the basic material of the movement (ex. 4.2). (“The theme,
listen for the theme!”) A more global context explains the “dramatic Fs–F
slip” as an echo of another prominent half-step slip in the movement, the
beginning of the development at measure 160. The loud Fs itself echoes mea-
sure 186, cementing a symmetrical formal relationship between the begin-
ning and the end of the development section.
One might quibble with some of the details of this context. The relation-
ship between D–A–D (4th + 5th) and F–Bf–F (5th + 4th) is more complex
than simple imitation, and surely the passage most echoed by measures
312–15 is not the opening of the development but the counterstatement of
the first theme at measures 48–50, with its own sudden drop from D–A–D to
F–Bf–F. But it is not my aim to “tyrannize” van den Toorn by forbidding him
contextual hearing and the power of his analytical insights. It is certainly pos-
sible to hear this moment of recapitulation van den Toorn’s way if one
desires; the issue is not one of right or wrong. Rather, the questions that need
to be asked are: What do we gain by hearing measures 301–15 only this way?
Conversely, what must we give up?
Van den Toorn is forthright in describing the benefits he gains by hear-
ing within the context he has constructed: “[the Fs–F slip] projects a large-
scale formal association that tends to dampen, at least for this observer, its
potential for alarm, the effect of ‘horror’ or ‘murderous rage’ felt by
McClary” (1995, 34). Here is the clearest possible statement of the defensive,
distancing aim of beautifying analysis. Over 150 years after Griepenkerl’s
novel, van den Toorn is still playing Adalbert to Susan McClary’s Vicarius,
using purely musical intuitions to call her back from dangerous hermeneu-
beethoven antihero 129

Example 4.2 Thematic “echo” in Beethoven, Ninth Symphony I, mm. 311–16;

after van den Toorn 1995.

ff Y CC BB
! Y 42 B
ff X C
C C C ff C C C
C jh C TU C C C UT C C S C C C
! Y 42 C C C C
ff hj WC
# Y 2 ___ W_ C ___ W C C C C X C C C C ___ __
4 WC __ YC C_
ff ff

! Y B BB
! Y C
C C T U U jhl C OO C CO C C
# Y C __

tic excess, his analytical counterargument not much more than a more
sophisticated and extended version of . . .
“The theme, listen for the theme!”

moment two: the unsalvageable form

(postmodern sublimity)
Recent critical musicology has foresworn beautifying projects on canonic
masterpieces; faced with an entrenched post-Schenkerian tradition of using
analytical rigor as the most effective way to repress the sublime, the “new”
musicology has also tended to forswear rigorous technical analysis. Even
now, we still inscribe a piece like Beethoven’s Ninth under the sign of the
modern sublime, the perfect form that rescues us from impossible or trans-
gressive content. Formal analysis would then by definition be beautification, a
subtle or not-so-subtle relaxation toward the reassuring certainties and away
from the challenging confusions of this (or any) modern artwork.
But who is to say that the form of Beethoven’s Ninth actually holds any
130 robert fink

reassuring certainties? In the second part of this essay, I intend to use the
first-movement recapitulation as the touchstone in a wide-ranging analytical
discussion that incorporates all the richness of musical detail I can muster.
The burden of the argument will be that, far from offering us salvation from
the symphony’s unpresentable content, the form of Beethoven’s Ninth is
itself not salvageable, shattered at its critical structural turning points by the
irruption of the unpresentable into the act of presentation. I believe, pace
van den Toorn, that the deeper we delve into the specific musical and formal
tensions this work enacts, the more “potential for alarm” we will find.
Let us begin by taking McClary’s infamous evocation of the postmodern
sublime not as a simplistic statement about content, but as a complex intu-
ition about form. It might be schematically unpacked as follows. The thrust-
ing drive of tonal music, the intertwining of harmonic and formal necessity,
is physical, and gives rise to a physical desire—analogous to sexual desire. In
measures 301–15, Beethoven focuses all the potential desire of a large-scale
symphonic form onto a single cadential moment (McClary: “damming up
energy”), and then proceeds to botch it unforgettably in a passage of terri-
fyingly violent orchestral kineticism (McClary: “which finally explodes in the
throttling, murderous rage of a rapist”) that is thereby frustrated, which is to
say reconverted into potential (McClary: “unable to attain release”).
It is worth pointing out how far this is from a man-hating condemnation
of “Beethoven the Pornographer” (van den Toorn 1991, 291). We the lis-
teners are both raped and rapists. It is both our desire that is frustrated by the
botched progression, and our bodies and minds that are overwhelmed by the
“noise” of the orchestra and the irrationality of the passage. McClary does not
just “cry rape”: she evokes the complex mimetic image of a rapist who is unable
to attain release. And in this she provides a precise echo of previous male crit-
ics like A. B. Marx (“To conclude?—no, that is not within the power of this
troubled Giant-Spirit”). She introduces them to Adrienne Rich, whose poem
on the Ninth begins: “A man in terror of impotence . . .”
Thus the first step toward understanding the larger structural implications
of this traumatic passage is to hear it as a violent acting out covering up a
more fundamental formal impotence; this reading of the musical surface
becomes increasingly insistent as we survey critical responses from Marx to
McClary. To go any further, we must break new ground, and investigate in a
more detailed and unconventional way just what it is that this passage was try-
ing—and so conspicuously failing—to do.

The “Lydian” Ascent

First we can abandon the attempt to salvage the enigmatic bass progression
at measure 318. Let it stand unrationalized as a mimesis of failure, a pure
negation of some other musical process. We need to concentrate not on the
beethoven antihero 131

Example 4.3 Beethoven, Missa Solemnis, Gloria, mm. 176–90.

Do - mi-ne De-us, Rex coe - le -stis,

f g f B fB
! Y 43 C O C C
Do - mi-ne De-us, g Rex coe - le -stis,

C f CC O C C f BC C C
f C C C fB WC C
# YY 3 C O C C C C C C
4 h CO C C C

! Y C
De - us, De - us, pa- ter o mni - po - tens.

bass, but on what the bass denies: the soprano line, which it flatly refuses to
support, specifically the Af(Gs) A in the first flute. Physical extremity and
rhythmic surprise mark this Gs–A as a significant melodic climax; the non-
progression of the bass marks it (makes it) unequivocally a failure. In this
case, Beethoven has annihilated his climax so thoroughly that little more
than the indecipherable fragments from some kind of rising line are left
behind. To reconstruct this ascent, and ascertain its place within some larger
formal mechanism, we can attempt to read it through another failed ascent,
analogous in structure, but less extreme and thus less distorted. Example 4.3
reproduces what I feel is a functionally identical spot in the Missa Solemnis:
measures 176–90 of the Gloria (“Domine Deus, Rex coelestis, Deus pater
omnipotens”). This passage displays a striking identity of surface detail, local
harmonic progression, and large-scale formal function with measures
301–15. Once we determine how this earlier failed climax works, we can use
that knowledge to comprehend the later and significantly more disrupted
Simple enumeration will document a telling repetition of compositional
detail: both climaxes are built around the same loud, off-balance anticipa-
tion of the Bf–D–F–Af sonority (ff in the Ninth, fff in the Gloria). Both sur-
prise chords support a long Af in the flutes that progresses directly and
enharmonically to A. Both passages are sonically extreme: the prolonged
orchestral battering of the Ninth is matched in sheer violence by the Gloria’s
132 robert fink

overwhelming and isolated blast (fff tutti with chorus, trombones) on the
crucial Bf7 —a truly awesome depiction of the “pater omnipotens.” Even the
drumroll on a non-fundamental D is the same.
The convergence of sound is the visceral clue to an identity of function.
Both of these passages attempt a piece of modulatory trickery very charac-
teristic of Beethoven: they reinterpret a dominant-seventh chord
(Bf–D–F–Af) as a German sixth (Bf–D–F–Gs) to force an enharmonic short-
cut out of a long flat-side excursion and back home to D major. The har-
monic functions map quite neatly from one piece to the other (see ex. 4.4).
Both passages come from the flat side of D—the Gloria from Ef (locally
IV/Bf; m. 174), the Ninth from F (measures 287 ff.). In both cases the sud-
den intrusion of an Fs instead of the expected F creates a D-major triad,
which functions locally as V/gm (Gloria, mm. 182–84; Ninth, mm. 301–11).
At this point, the Gloria, composing out van den Toorn’s “cadential cliché,”
gives us fully and explicitly what the Ninth elides and distorts beyond recog-
nition. V/gm actually resolves to G minor in measure 185 of the Gloria, fol-
lowed immediately by the pivotal Bf–D–F–Af, whose enharmonic resolution
to a unison A ( = V/D, resolving in the next measure) this time makes per-
fect voice-leading sense.
Yet this modulatory progression, though more syntactically correct than
its counterpart in the Ninth, is no less a failure to establish D major as tonic.
Beethoven immediately undermines his seemingly “omnipotent” climax.
Measures 192–95 provide an exceptionally vivid piece of mime in which the
fff tutti falls apart before our eyes: fading shards of the movement’s opening
motive disintegrate into aimless woodwind chattering while the energy of
rushing unison scales in the strings audibly droops and dissipates, section by
section. And, just as in the Ninth, we realize retroactively that the big D-major
chord at this climax was not a tonic, but a dominant. By allowing Bf and Ef
to reassert themselves, Beethoven turns the omnipotent D into a somewhat
querulous V9/gm—and we fall back to the flat side again. The final clue,
though inaudible, is unequivocal in its symbolic import. The written key sig-
nature after the climax is the same as it was before: two flats. In terms of real
modulatory activity, nothing has happened—just as in measures 301–15 of
the Ninth, where the implied key signature both coming in (F major) and
going out (D minor) is one flat.22
So it appears that no amount of physical (or rhetorical) force will convert
this enharmonic trick into a true modulation; in retrospect, the brutal
excess of both these G6 chords only betrays a foreknowledge of failure, the
awareness that the rules are being broken, that this shortcut between third-
related triads ultimately won’t work. Indeed, the significance of this particu-
lar and complicated mimetic gesture (stressed G6 leads to instantaneous
modulation up by third; premature arrival on major tonic; immediate dis-
integration) was being established by Beethoven as early as 1807. In mea-
beethoven antihero 133

Example 4.4 Linear-harmonic comparison of Beethoven, Ninth Symphony I,

mm. 287–315 with Missa Solemnis, Gloria, mm. 174–200.

#4 – 5
Gloria, mm. 174–200
! Y AA A A A A
# Y YA A A A
flat side F∏ ! “G6” V I

Ninth, mm. 287–315 #4 – 5

# Y A WA
flat side F∏ ! “G6” (V?) I

sures 73–91 of the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony, there is an abrupt
“modulation” from the flat side (Af) to the tonic major of the entire work (C
major) accomplished by an unexpected and assaultive G6; this highly
unstable tonic then fades away, evaporating back into the flat side through
an amorphous chromatic passage.
The “G6 cadence” in this mimetic context becomes a signifier of har-
monic failure; its similar appearance provides a convincing link between
measures 185–89 of the Gloria and measures 312–15 of the first movement
of the Ninth. As we know from tonal theory, G6 is primarily a linear chord,
and it is as a signifier of linear failure that I ultimately want to consider it. It
is in terms of long-range dramatic voice leading that reading the Ninth
through the Gloria begins to pay off most spectacularly. These passages both
use local harmonic failures to undermine the large-scale linear structures
that aim to climax above them. But the linear ascent that was shattered
beyond reconstruction in the Ninth is merely negated, after the fact, in the
Gloria. In fact, the Lydian ascent that is momentarily achieved in measures
174–89 of the Gloria, together with the bass line that ultimately undermines
it, gives us the basic outline of a complex linear-harmonic template that
functions on a large scale in both the Ninth and the Missa Solemnis.
One can see the melodic significance of the Gs–A that is common to both
failed climaxes more clearly in the more coherent linear context of the Glo-
ria: there it functions as the powerfully stressed last step in a chromatic
ascent from D to A that spans measures 173–89 (see the soprano line of ex.
134 robert fink

4.3). This ascent to scale degree 5 (in the high soprano register) by way of a
dramatically highlighted sharp fourth scale degree is the basic prototype of
successful linear motion in the Ninth and the D-major sections of the Missa
—thus the descriptive term “Lydian.”

The Lydian Ascent, the Missing Dominant, and the Subdominant Collapse
A cursory look at the D-centered movements in the Missa Solemnis and the
Ninth Symphony will uncover plentiful attempts at this climactic Lydian
march up to the fifth scale degree (Gloria, measures 38–42, 303–12; 335–45,
509–25, 530–42; Dona nobis pacem, measures 350–74; Ninth I, measures
31–35, 55–63, 301–15, 531–39; Ninth IV, measures 325–29, 832–41; see Fink
1994). But what does it mean to argue that this melodic mannerism encodes
some kind of possible formal success—and, conversely, that diatonic cli-
mactic progressions more firmly “in D” are to be heard as “failures”? How is
it that the diatonic scale steps of D major are somehow not good enough for
the Ninth?
I have discussed what Leo Treitler once called “the phenomenology of key
relations” in the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony at length elsewhere
(Fink 1994, 167–71). I will simply recall here what Treitler and others have
noted: that large-scale tonal relationships in the Ninth Symphony are
plagued by a pull toward the flat side, “down” toward “darker” keys like B-
flat and E-flat, a pull that has the effect of derailing, time and again, the move
“up” and sharpwards to the dominant (Treitler 1989, 57–63).23 This seduc-
tive pull, if indulged, threatens to usurp the tonic–dominant polarity that is
an absolute necessity if a traditional sonata form (which the Ninth still
emphatically tries to be) is to make sense.
The battle against this flat-side pull lies behind two of the most com-
mented-upon narrative threads in the Ninth’s symphonic plot: the drive to
move from D minor to D major; and the equally compelling need to exor-
cise B-flat so that it can no longer compete as a tonal center with D. The dra-
matic coups de théâtre are familiar to anyone who has studied the piece: sud-
den unmotivated drops by third to F, Bf, and even Ef triads at critical
moments in the form; systematic displacement of secondary key areas in the
dominant or relative major with moves to the flat submediant; increasingly
violent attempts to banish Efs and Bfs from crucial cadential gestures; the
final achievement of a hushed and radiant B major, followed by the heedless
rush of a (seemingly) unsullied D-major corroboree.
Thus for most commentators, the story of the Ninth is about getting rid
of the tonal intrusions that undermine the stability of the D-major tonic. But
simply banishing “wrong notes” and “wrong keys,” sharping all the Fns and
naturalizing all the Bfs, does not actually solve the fundamental tonal aporia
of the work: the fatal absence, especially in the D-centered outer movements,
beethoven antihero 135

of a firmly articulated structural dominant. Beethoven’s attempted solution,

unremarked by previous analytical commentary, seems to have been to
change the actual character of his D tonic so that it could take over at least
some of the function of this missing dominant—in effect, to “Lydianize” the
tonic areas of the Ninth, to tilt them sharpwards, so that they always already
carry the tonic–dominant polarity with them.
This sharpward tilt makes itself felt primarily as a melodic tendency
toward the fifth scale degree. Consider the first tonic sonority of the Ninth,
at measures 15–16: it is a “D chord,” but only eight players are on D (the two
bassoons and the two Bf horns, doubled), while all of the sixty-odd other
instrumentalists who are playing have the pitch A (there is no F).24 To a
remarkable degree the melodic goal of significant “tonic” climaxes in the D-
centered sections of the Ninth is the dominant A, not the fundamental D—
thus the famous opening of the Ninth, where A enters, grows, and ascends
to the highest orchestral register before D appears, and is even allowed to gen-
erate its own upper fifth, E.
This is the crucial formal function of the Ninth’s repeated attempts at dra-
matic “Lydian” approaches to scale degree 5: a melodic emphasis on Gs–A
progressions at significant cadences attempts to provide the necessary sharp-
ening force to establish D major as a tonic without a dominant, and in spite of
the disruptive gravitational pull of the lowered mediant and submediant.
It is a risky tonal strategy, to say the least—and there are two distinctive
ways ascending melodic gestures toward the dominant scale degree can fail
to do the job. (Here, as promised, is at least the sketch of an aesthetics of fail-
ure. For a more extensive discussion, see Fink 1994.) If the Lydian inflection
is absent, if the fourth scale degree is blandly natural, we risk “subdominant
collapse”: rising melodic lines may stall on G, precipitating modulatory cas-
cades in the subdominant direction. Subdominant collapse is usually the first
step in a structural modulation far into the flat side—to keys like F and Bf
(see Ninth I, measures 24, 50, 70–80; IV, measures 329, 594, 643). But the
Lydian ascent can also be derailed by exactly that persistent flat tendency:
as the soprano ascends through Gs to A, it may be undermined by Bf in the
bass, producing the familiar augmented sixth. Though a melodic line may
briefly touch the dominant, the G6 progression underneath inevitably suc-
cumbs to submediant pressure, and collapses even more chaotically toward
the flat side.

Failure upon Failure: The Moment of Recapitulation Revisited

Both of these failures concatenate at the fateful moment of recapitulation.
The “G6 cadence” is, of course, the brusque harmonic shortcut we have
already identified at measure 312 as a sign of modulatory failure. In this con-
text it is a gesture of complete formal disintegration, coming as it does
136 robert fink

directly on the heels of a previous failed attempt to avoid flat-side collapse and
stabilize D major as tonic.
I consider the linear-dramatic significance of the famously “darkly blaz-
ing” D-major chord itself, voiced with a prominent A on top, to be the des-
perate attempt to avoid an incipient subdominant collapse, to progress
directly from an unsharped fourth to a stable fifth scale degree. The first
horn’s seventh at measures 293–300 does not fall to the third; it rises to the
fifth in direct and visceral contravention of voice-leading rules—in effect,
against tonal “gravity.” (Contrary to his received image as a brutal and
heedless orchestrator, Beethoven could be exquisitely considerate of
instrumental needs when it suited his dramatic purpose. So the hornists
are the only players given rests on the last beat before D major crashes in;
they alone have time to breathe and prepare a true ff attack. We need that
high A.)
This to me is what is so terrible about the “terrible” D major: the sheer
violence channeled into supporting the doomed D–A fifth—an interval
whose imminent collapse will call into question a basic axiom of
Beethoven’s tonal harmony. The perceptual precision of A. B. Marx’s Faus-
tian fustian now becomes impressively clear: he is exactly right to focus on
the way that Beethoven makes Fs–A–D sound as if unnaturally (and precar-
iously) frozen in place: “er . . . steht . . . zwölf Takte lang, unbeweglich wie
ein Schreckensphantom, auf Fis-A-D . . .” And Faust’s cry of horror in the
face of this “terrifying phantom” could double as Beethoven’s cry of despair
when the horns collapse down to low [D] in measure 312: “Weh! Ich ertrag
dich nicht!” (The English equivalent that best captures the linear double
meaning is “I cannot bear you”—both “I cannot endure you” and “I cannot
hold you up”; the root of ertragen is tragen = “carry.”) The open fifth, so cos-
mically weightless in the Ninth’s opening bars, now carries all the weight of
tonic–dominant polarity, and is literally insupportable without some dra-
matic reinforcement.
The crucial fifth scale degree is so unstable that Beethoven immediately
resorts to a brutal G6 cadence in hopes of generating a dramatic Lydian pro-
gression to shore it up. When that cadence collapses in a welter of voice-lead-
ing mistakes, the double failure extinguishes all hope for the strong push
through sharp 4 to 5 that would buttress tonic–dominant polarity and in so
doing, at least partially compensate for the movement’s lack of a structural
dominant. Beethoven’s “inability to attain release” at this pivotal formal
moment—he tries to get it up (to A), and fails twice!—threatens the global
collapse of tonal logic. The unspeakable content (“A man in terror of impo-
tence . . .”) leaves its trace on the music itself: a failed recapitulation; a lin-
ear collapse; a shattered tonic–dominant polarity; ultimately, an unsalvage-
able form.
beethoven antihero 137

Example 4.5 Beethoven, Ninth Symphony I, Coda, mm. 531–38: Lydian ascent

∏3 ∏4 5
! Y 42
ff π6

ff [I C C C C
°V/V V]

∏3 ∏4 5
! Y
sempre ff
sempre ff

Flutes and horns grasp desperately for the dominant A while the bass line
that spiked their G6 cadence continues to wreak havoc: metrically out of step
with both winds and strings, it gnaws away at the tonic pedal, gradually forc-
ing it flatwards with grinding Cns and Fss. By measure 325 we have arrived,
not at the hoped-for dominant, but at a root-position subdominant that
quickly plunges to a Neapolitan Ef.
We must wait over 200 measures for a partial retrieval of the recapitula-
tion’s titanic collapse onto the subdominant; this is the function of the very
last harmonic progression of the first movement (mm. 531–38; ex. 4.5). The
Lydian ascent Fs–Gs–A blared out by the ff woodwind (the second time in
brutal unison) is clear enough; it should also be pointed out that the har-
monic progression taking place over the tonic pedal is an implicit recom-
position of the failed G6 cadence of measures 312–15. D major as possible
V/iv is now followed by a “corrected” predominant sonority: Bn–D–F–Gs as
° V/V, instead of Bf–D–F–Af as G6/V (see the reductions in ex. 4.6).25 With
the (momentary) purging of Bf, Beethoven can finish the ascent, progress-
ing directly to the missing root-position V and thence to the tonic.
There are no more Bfs in the first movement, but that is only because
Beethoven deploys the ascending melodic version of the D-minor scale to
138 robert fink

Example 4.6 Beethoven, Ninth Symphony I: Fs–Gs–A as scale steps; long-range

connections implied by Schenker (1912).

1. Schenker’s analysis of mm. 301–15 2. Schenker’s analysis of mm. 531–39

Scale steps: ∏IV V Scale steps: ∏III ∏IV V

! Y AA A A ! Y A X A WA
progressions A XA A
# Y WA # Y

! Y A A A ! Y A X AA W AAA
# Y WA WA A analyses # Y WA WA A
I∏3 ∏IV [ ∫ 7/3] V [6/4] (I) I∏3 ∏IV 7 V (I)
Scale steps: ∏III ∏IV V Scale steps: ∏III ∏IV V

f∏ – g∏ – a

close. The first movement’s final cadence, martial as it is, cannot “fix” the fail-
ure of the recapitulation by establishing D major as tonic. The second move-
ment tries to further a Lydian agenda, moving immediately from D minor to
C major (the dominant of the relative major, a “sharper” key than we might
expect); it also, as van den Toorn points out, re-stages the crucial G6 cadence
of the first movement at its own moment of recapitulation (mm. 248–83)
with slightly better local results. But the ultimate outcome is yet another col-
lapse onto B-flat as submediant (m. 304). This scherzo has a bad habit of
spinning ever flatter through cycles of falling thirds (mm. 144–71); these dis-
orienting descents prepare us for the topsy-turvy world of the slow move-
ment, where D major is made to serve as secondary key to the submediant-
as-tonic, B-flat.
That same B-flat is jammed like a dissonant splinter into the opening D-
minor sonority of the last movement. This submediant-infected minor tonic
is in first inversion, and “progresses” through a German-sixth chord to the
dominant: with horror (nineteenth-century German critics dubbed this the
beethoven antihero 139

Schreckensfanfare, the “fanfare of terror”) we recognize a garbled attempt at

the failed progression of the first movement recapitulation. F–A–D–Bf is an
intensified version of the catastrophic i6, F–A–D, that closed the door on D
major—and on the Lydian ascent—in the first movement; here it precedes the
G6 in a sublime moment of formal and harmonic torment. (The second ter-
ror-fanfare is truly gruesome, jamming pitches from both submediant and
dominant scale steps into F–A–D to create the proto-expressionistic hexa-
chord F–A–D–Bf–Cs–E; see Fink 1994, 196–99.) The stage is set for the
resumption of the Ninth’s fundamental tonal tragedy, with the hubris of
Lydian moves to impossible dominants (mm. 207, 325, 715) followed
inevitably by nemesis, in the form of ever-more-vertiginous subdominant col-
lapses (mm. 208, 329, 728).
But Beethoven allows us one visionary gleam of escape from the insolu-
ble formal contradictions that derail the Ninth’s every attempt at tonal res-
olution. He abandons (momentarily) his frenzied attempts to pound home
a Lydianized tonic. In fact, he abandons the tonic altogether.
As the solo quartet launches into a final Lydian ascent, “poco adagio” and
notably free of pelvic pounding, the soprano reaches high G, and then Gs;
now, miraculously (and in context, it really does sound like a miracle), E
major, the “double dominant” of D, does not fall away to the subdominant;
it becomes the subdominant, leading to a prolonged bass pedal on Fs as the
dominant of B major. This is the same Fs that froze in the bass as the third of
an unstable first-inversion D-major triad “for twelve long bars, immovable
like a terrifying specter, like the gloomily flaming Erdgeist.” Now—if I may be
permitted my own overheated Faustian metaphor—the ewig Weibliche opens
her gentle wings over its quiet persistence. The pervasive undertow of B-flat
is effortlessly banished by a single ecstatic moment in B-natural.
What if Beethoven had ended the whole symphony right here, with this
hushed and unhurried meditation in B—and not with the noisy machismo
in D we know is coming? (I think he wanted to, at least subconsciously. Why
else would he write out the five sharps, and dignify a seven-measure har-
monic excursion with two double bars and a notated change of key signa-
ture?) In that case, the Ninth Symphony would become Modern: ending in
a key other than the one in which it began, it would anticipate develop-
ments in symphonic logic not actualized until the early twentieth century.
(Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony begins in C minor and ends in D-flat
major; his Fifth moves from C-sharp minor to D major; his own Ninth
begins in D major, but ends in D-flat major.) And I would yield to no one in
my admiration for Beethoven’s daring essay into the fully modern sublime,
for his “increase of being and the jubilation which results from the inven-
tion of new rules of the game” (Lyotard). After all, the absence of the home
dominant scarcely matters if one has the freedom to transcend the home
140 robert fink

But Beethoven, tragically, lacks this transcendent freedom; the Ninth is

inexorably pulled back to D major, and a last attempt to banish all the
moments of impotent falling away from it. No matter that his manic striving
after potency will shatter the formal logic of the work and usher it into the
realm of the postmodern sublime: Beethoven wants his orgasm—and he
wants it on his “own” (D-major) terms.
And of course, so do we, his equally non-transcendent audience. The final
Prestissimo provides the orgiastic release we demand, no more decorously
than the Rossinian stretta-finales whose shrill sound world (bass drum, cym-
bals, triangle, piccolo) it so brazenly appropriates. Ironically or not,
Beethoven appears to be acknowledging that if there was in fact a musician
who could give a kiss to the whole world, ca. 1825, it would be the composer
of Il barbiere —and not that of Fidelio. (Nicholas Cook [1993, 103] seems to
agree with me here.)
But it is a serious oversimplification to see the noisy finish of the Ninth as
nothing but a calculated drop into the demotic, a sacrifice of decorum in the
name of liberté, egalité, fraternité. The analogous final Presto of the Missa Solem-
nis’s Gloria is loud and exciting, but it also exhibits a carefully controlled lin-
ear structure: a complex final ascent that, even as it grabs for the gut, deftly
recapitulates and exorcises all the linear-harmonic tensions of the move-
ment. (Opus 123 is more formally “correct”—and thus less sublime—than
op. 125.) Beethoven has no time for such niceties in the Ninth: I have
searched in vain for a final symbolic ascent that wraps up the melodic desires
of the work in a neat and intellectually satisfying way. Nor do the conflicting
tonalities receive any kind of epigrammatic final resolution. The Prestissimo
does begin with a paradigmatic Lydian ascent to scale degree 5, strikingly
similar to a passage of similar function at the end of the Gloria. And there is,
at “Tochter aus Elysium,” one last symbolic collapse of momentum linked to
the natural fourth scale degree. But Beethoven throws away this opportunity
to reactivate his linear mechanism and drive it home.
The last bars of the Maestoso (mm. 918–19) clearly represent the final tran-
scendental climax of Beethoven’s drama—and they ascend through scale
degrees 3, 4, and 5. There is, however, no trace of Lydian inflection. Why the
bald I–IV–V–I cadence—why not a significant correction of scale degree 4,
or at least a final engagement with the flat side? In this last rush to climax,
Beethoven seems satisfied to forgo linear and harmonic subtlety for brute
force. He hammers home the dominant scale degree and the Lydian tonic
with what even a sympathetic critic might term “strenuous affirmation”—and
a feminist might call “bludgeoning the cadence to death.”
She would have a point: the level of orchestral violence needed to main-
tain the celebration of brotherhood cannot easily be glossed over. Aside
from the constant assault of brass and percussion, the massed woodwinds are
beethoven antihero 141

topped by a truly egregious piccolo part. This stratospheric obbligato is only

playable at an unremitting fortissimo. When attempted by two early nine-
teenth-century piccolos at the extreme limit of their compass it cuts right
through the texture, just on the border between a succession of musical
pitches and an out-of-tune shriek.26 One might excuse Beethoven on purely
physiological grounds: it seems likely that by 1825 this high-pitched whistle
was the only musical sound that had any chance of surmounting his hearing
But how much of this sound’s impact is in fact “musical”? The end of the
Ninth feels so extreme because the energy it embodies constantly threatens
to leave the realm of the musical altogether; in these final seconds, pure
energy takes over and emancipates itself as pure noise. Consider the wild pas-
sage that begins thirteen bars from the end: it is a prolongation of the D-
major tonic, as well as the melodic pitch A. But scale degree five is not sta-
bilized by harmonic or linear logic, by some performative use (or abuse) of
musical syntax; it is held up by sheer dynamic force. This is the ultimate
Rossini crescendo, one that starts from double-forte: nothing but a blazing
tonic chord, repeated sixteen times in a row. The ululating piccolos and
horns, savagely scrubbing strings, and pounding drums pump energy into
the D-major triad until it incandesces.27
To return to the language of sublimating criticism: it was Beethoven’s
demonic genius to know that this symphony—which emerged so hesitantly
into music from amorphous noise—must end by rocketing right out of music
and back into ecstatic noise. There is no formal resolution. Kretzschmar was
right: even the most extreme means of musical art would not have sufficed
to bring the Ninth to a close. The only thing that can drown out the noise of
failure in this symphony is not music, but the even more violent noise of form-
annihilating “success.”28

. . . yelling at Joy from the tunnel of the ego
music without the ghost
of another person in it, music
trying to tell something the man
does not want out, would keep if he could
gagged and bound and flogged with chords of Joy
where everything is silence and the
beating of a bloody fist upon
a splintered table.
adrienne rich, “The Ninth Symphony
of Beethoven Understood at Last as
a Sexual Message”
142 robert fink

Beethoven Antihero
Noise is the trace the unpresentable leaves in a musical presentation, the
high-decibel, high-distortion edge of the postmodern sonic sublime. And it
seems in the late twentieth century it has mostly been women listening to
Beethoven’s Ninth as noise. They are the only ones who are willing to talk
about it, at any rate; and their reaction has been uniformly troubled. After
all: the sixteen-fold trochaic repetition of a fortissimo D-major triad I just fin-
ished celebrating—wasn’t that the exact passage in the Ninth that inspired
Adrienne Rich to the brutal trochaic pentameter of “Gagged and bound and
flogged with chords of Joy” (Rich 1973, 205–6)? There are sixteen trochees
from “gagged” to the end of her poem; you could sing her words to
Beethoven’s music. (Go on—I dare you.)
It was Susan McClary who introduced most of us to Rich’s poem, and
McClary is well aware of the insoluble dilemma that this Prestissimo repre-

The “triumphal” end of the symphony is likewise problematic, for how could
any configuration of pitches satisfactorily ground the contradictions set
forth over the course of this gargantuan composition? As the conclusion
is approached, the promised (though by definition, inadequate) cadences
repeatedly are withheld at the last moment; and finally Beethoven simply
forces closure by bludgeoning the cadence and the piece to death. (1991,

What could be a clearer intuition of the formal collapse inherent in Lyotard’s

postmodern sublime? McClary points out the “much higher level of vio-
lence” at the end of the work, and sees this attempt to “force closure” as a
failed correction of the violent failed closures (“unable to achieve release”)
in the first movement recapitulation and the opening of the finale. She cuts
to the heart of the argument that I have made here at much greater length:
that there is not any musical gesture (“any configuration of pitches”) that
could possibly resolve the tensions of the Ninth—that the resort to sublime,
form-destroying noise is inevitable (1991, 129–30).
But there is a profound unease in her description of the closing bars; in
both Rich’s and McClary’s accounts, imagery and tone again conjure up the
specter of rape. The logic is hard to dismiss: If we accept that the noise of the
first movement recapitulation is the rage of impotence, of violent desire
unable to achieve release—and my entire analysis is based on this observa-
tion—then doesn’t the last movement end with the terrifying elation of
potency —with that violent D-major desire now satisfied, through the all-too-
masculine expedient of increasing the level of violence until someone gets
(raped and) killed? There is indeed something sinister about the moment
when the tonal phallus is no longer clothed in formal dialectics, when
beethoven antihero 143

Beethoven’s overwhelming desire for the tonic major strides forth, “naked
and powerful.”
“Seid umschlungen”? Maybe not.
The title of Rich’s poem is “The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Under-
stood at Last as a Sexual Message.” Understood that way, as we have under-
stood it here, the message really is profoundly dystopic and disturbing, a mes-
sage totally at odds with the work’s utopian Enlightenment surface. But it
would be a serious mistake to think that the feminist demurral in the face of
the Ninth’s triumphal ending is merely an artifact of their sexual reading,
and can be erased by refusing to hear the piece “their way.” The doubts they
raise resonate with other radical critiques of music and society—even those
untainted by sexual hermeneutics. For example, it’s easy to link this musical
violence to actual social and political structures. There could hardly be any
simple, unambivalent approach to “alle Menschen werden Brüder” in Met-
ternich’s Austria, after the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna.
(Nicholas Cook puts it well: “can Beethoven really have been so unthinking,
so dumb, as to remain unaffected by the history of his own time, holding true
to the beliefs of the 1780s in the Vienna of the 1820s, with its censorship,
secret police, and network of informers?” [1993, 102]) One could point out
that by 1825, Beethoven himself had experienced (if vicariously) the dialec-
tical relation between Enlightenment reason, violence and totalitarian con-
trol. The canceled dedication of the Eroica is a famous example of
Beethoven’s sensitivity to the failure of revolutionary politics. Is the Ninth his
Sinfonia anti-eroica? Did he, twenty years later, compose a little bit of the Ter-
ror and the Restoration into his belated paean to the ideals of the French
Revolution? (The Ninth, by the way, is dedicated to one of the founding
members of the counterrevolutionary Holy Alliance, King Friedrich Wil-
helm III of Prussia, “in tiefster Ehrfurcht.”)
Explicit political metaphors for musical violence—anarchy, class war, civil
insurrection—already appear in Greipenkerl’s 1838 account of the first-
movement recapitulation. “Old Hitzig,” the principal bassist, is under no
illusions that, in the midst of music like this, “all men are brothers”:

Through the entire passage the double basses held on to D, once again in
thirty-seconds. Old Hitzig, who completely understood the gigantic pedal
point of which he was the Atlas, leaned into his instrument and counterbal-
anced the storm breaking over his head with all his God-given strength of arm.
He pulled notes out of his old Luizi that cut through the orchestral mass like
the pedal tones of an organ.
“Stand firm,” he encouraged the other double-bassists. “The rabble above us
is really going crazy. [Das Gesindel über uns treibt wahrhaftig zu toll.] Don’t let go,
and it will all pass right over us. The scoundrels have a good mind to toss us bass
players in the pan and make pancakes of us. Damn, those triplet-sixteenths in
the flutes and violins whistle like bullets through dry grass, I’ll soon take one
144 robert fink

in my hide.”—“The colors are saved, Music Director,” he loudly cried, as he

arrived on Cs. “The basses’ve held out, I think!—”

A bystander like Vicarius (thus his name?) can afford to indulge in sub-
lime affirmations of this welter of sound (“this is no street brawl”). Hitzig is
in the thick of it. Trying, like any good bass player, to preserve the remnants
of orderly root progression, he hears above him only the threat of a mob riot-
ing dangerously out of control (“Das Gesindel über uns treibt wahrhaftig zu
toll”). History tells us that we unleash this revolutionary force at our peril;
there is only a short step from brotherhood to blood-brotherhood. When D
major returns at the end of the piece, is it because all men are brothers—or
just that they all, finally, love Big Brother?
For a dialectician like Adorno, the choice is moot. Rose Subotnik intro-
duced many of us to Adorno’s “diagnosis” of Beethoven’s late style, a style
that for Adorno was inconceivable in isolation from the successive political
disillusionments of the years 1789–1824. Confrontation with the funda-
mental truth of modern society—that individual freedom and social order
are not reconcilable—rendered the affirmative critique inherent in
Beethoven’s “heroic” second-period style impossible to sustain. Earlier,
Beethoven had created optimistic musical narratives in which individual sub-
jects (themes) enacted struggle and synthesis with society (form). But by
1824 this utopian synthesis was no longer a believable prospect:

if Beethoven’s style had maintained its affirmative character in the third

period, giving no sign of the irreconcilable dichotomies now perceptible as
fundamental to reality, his music would have become what Adorno calls “ide-
ology”: . . . it would have contributed to the preservation of a “false conscious-
ness,” which served not human integrity and freedom but an oppressive world.
His music would have lost its status as authentic art . . . (Subotnik 1991, 24)

Thus Adorno finds “authenticity” in the late style’s refusal of the heroic
manner, its denial of synthesis. Musical works now act out the impossibility
of synthesis: the battle between the individuality embodied in themes and
the necessity inherent in forms shatters the musical discourse. Form either
fragments into anarchy, or becomes overtly conventional and oppressive;
subjectivity flees behind equally fragmented or conventional musical mate-
From this point of view, the embattled first movement of the Ninth is bril-
liantly negative, and the “sublime” moment of recapitulation is actually its
most tragic and authentic denial of synthesis (this Adorno-esque subtext is
particularly strong in McClary 1991). But the heavy-handed utopianism of
the Ode to Joy is out of touch, dangerously close to “false consciousness.”
Indeed, Adorno had problems with the Ninth as ideology: choosing between
the late choral works, he spurned the Ninth in favor of the Missa Solemnis, a
beethoven antihero 145

piece he read as a hieratic retreat from subjectivity, and which he anointed

as Beethoven’s “alienated Masterwork” (“verfremdetes Hauptwerk”)—a master-
work, one presumes, precisely because of its unassimilable alienation. Perhaps
this is why it was the Ninth, particularly, that Adorno demanded Western civ-
ilization retract in Thomas Mann’s 1948 novel Dr. Faustus. (Faust, once
Subotnik suggests that if we accept Adorno’s valuation of late Beethoven,
the affirmation of the Ninth is impossible to accept: “[this] suggests that
Beethoven not only failed to communicate the content of his last symphony,
but actually came very near to violating that content in the attempt to com-
municate it” (1991, 34). One assumes that Adorno would not be at all sur-
prised if we felt that violation, if the end of the Ninth actually felt oppressive;
it would then stand as a perfect example of what he called the “dialectic of
Enlightenment.” Trapped in a falsely absolute affirmation of Enlightenment
ideals (“the stars above us, and the moral law within”), Beethoven makes the
inevitable slip from Kant and Rousseau to their successor in the negative
dialectic, the equally “enlightened” Marquis de Sade:

When utopia, which provided the French Revolution with its content of hope,
entered German music and philosophy (effectively and ineffectively), the
established civil order wholly functionalized reason, which became a purpose-
less purposiveness which might thus be attached to all ends. In this sense, rea-
son is planning considered solely as planning. The totalitarian State manipu-
lates the people. Or as [the Marquis de] Sade’s [police chief,] Francavilla puts
it: “The government must control the population, and must possess all the
means necessary to exterminate them.” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1991,

From utopia to the death camp. And if Furtwängler could conduct the Ode
to Joy and then reach down to shake Goebbels’s hand, how can Adorno or any
of us exonerate Beethoven’s Ninth from its portion of guilt?
But we can, if we choose, leave the National Socialists out of it; there are
even more fundamental critiques available if we draw back from orgiastic cel-
ebrations of (Strength through) Joy. Consider Jacques Attali, for whom the con-
cept of “noise” is the foundation of a unique and brilliantly post-structural
“political economy of music.” Revisit the end of Beethoven’s Ninth with
Attali’s basic premise in mind:

Noise is a weapon and music, primordially, is the formation, domestication,

and ritualization of that weapon as a simulacrum of ritual murder. . . . it sym-
bolically signifies the channeling of violence and the imaginary, the ritualiza-
tion of a murder substituted for the general violence, the affirmation that a
society is possible if the imaginary of individuals is sublimated (Attali 1985,
146 robert fink

Both the feminist and the post-structuralist deal in basic instincts: for
McClary music constructs and disciplines sexuality, for Attali music con-
structs and disciplines aggression. And Attali, like McClary, is well aware of
how far this combination of sublimated sex and violence is from our ideal-
ized picture of musical appreciation:

The hypotheses of noise as murder and music as sacrifice are not easy to accept.
They imply that music functions like sacrifice; that listening to noise is a little
like being killed; that listening to music is to attend a ritual murder, with all
the danger, guilt, but also reassurance that goes along with that; that applaud-
ing is a confirmation, after the channelization of the violence, that the specta-
tors of the sacrifice could potentially resume practicing the essential violence
(Attali 1985, 28).

Perhaps we should be more hesitant about applauding after the Ninth,

since Beethoven has effectively forestalled us by composing this resumption
of the “essential violence” directly into the final bars of the piece! In Attali’s
formulation, the reversion to noise at the end of the Ninth is threatening for
the same reasons that Lyotard would laud it as postmodern and sublime.
Insofar as the celebration of an ideal society actually sounds like a murder to
us as listeners (“bludgeoning the piece to death”), it flirts with the collapse
of societal order, as it flirts with the collapse of the musical form through
which that order is embodied in sound.

envoi: who speaks for the ninth?

I want to finish by taking issue, once again, with Pieter van den Toorn, Susan
McClary’s most vehement and persistent scholarly interlocutor. Van den
Toorn expanded his original article-length response to her reading of
Beethoven’s Ninth into an omnibus attack on New Musicology tout court in
his 1995 book, Music, Politics, and the Academy. Both the article and the book
open with what is perhaps the least edifying moment in the entire discourse
around McClary’s Beethoven criticism. Van den Toorn begins his discussion
of “Feminism, Politics, and the Ninth” with an insidious rhetorical question:
“Is music inviolate?” One realizes with mounting incredulity as his argument
progresses that he is actually attempting to turn the rape metaphor back on
McClary herself. Hermeneutic criticism as practiced by the New Musicology
is a “violation” of music; McClary, not Beethoven, is the rapist; the coerced
victims are the Ninth itself, and sympathetic listeners like van den Toorn, for
whom “it is no longer permitted . . . to allow oneself to be enticed sponta-
neously, to allow for an immediate, intuitive response” (van den Toorn 1995,
11; 41–42). Music theory assumes the right to defend the music—and pros-
ecute the musicologist.
beethoven antihero 147

This attempt by a male music theorist to cry rape on behalf of a symphony

shows a confused grasp of sexual politics, to say the least; but it is worth revis-
iting the question of just who is raping what in re Beethoven’s Ninth one last
time. As we have seen, the identity of Beethoven with “the rapist” is not as
clear-cut as simplifying accounts of McClary might imply, since the tonal
desires frustrated are as much ours as the composer’s. But—to go a final step
further—Beethoven does bear some individual responsibility. Our most
canonic composer is in fact a musical rapist, but it is his own composition that
he violates. Beethoven sets up an immense and complex formal dialectic, uses
it to channel huge amounts of musico-libidinal energy—and then finally,
impatiently, violates his own form by forcing it to enact his crude, solipsistic
tonal desires. (“music without the ghost / of another person in it . . .”)
Adrienne Rich was right—the music of Beethoven’s Ninth is “trying to tell
something the man does not want out.” He was formally impotent, and
smashed his own Ode to Joy into pieces (pieces whose postmodern sublim-
ity can still terrify and inspire) to hide his shame. Who is it who covers up for
the man? And who speaks for—no, not the woman, she can do that for herself . . .
Who speaks for the music?

appendix: accounts of beethoven,

ninth symphony, I , 301–399
[Note: the dates given in the margin are the earliest publication dates; the
citations that follow are to the actual editions used in this essay.]
1838 Griepenkerl, Robert Wolfgang, Das Musikfest oder die Beethovener.
[Quoted by Dieter Rexroth in Ludwig van Beethoven Sinfonie Nr. 9, ed.
Rexroth (pocket score; Mainz: B. Schott’s Söhne, 1979), 386–87.]
1846 Wagner, Richard, “Bericht über die Aufführung der neunten
Symphonie von Beethoven im Jahre 1846, nebst Programm dazu,” in
Richard Wagners Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, Vol. 2, 2d ed.
(Leipzig, 1887), 56–58. (English translation is based on “The Choral
Symphony at Dresden: Programme,” in Richard Wagner’s Prose Works,
vol. 7, trans. Ellis (London, 1898), 247–48.
1853? Elterlein, Ernst v. (pseud. Ernst Gottschald), Beethoven’s Symphonien
nach ihrem idealen Behalt, 3d ed. (Dresden, 1870).
1859 Marx, Adolph Bernhard, Beethoven Leben und Schaffen (Berlin, 1859).
1873 Wagner, Richard, “The Rendering of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,”
in Prose Works, vol. 5, trans. Ellis (London, 1898), 231–53.
1886 Kretzschmar, Hermann, Führer durch den Konzertsaal, 4th ed. (Leipzig,
1884 Grove, George, Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies (London, 1884).
1880s? Riemann, Hugo, Concert Program w/Analysis. Unpub.
1889 Riemann, Hugo, Grundriß der Kompositionslehre (Musikalische
Formenlehre), Vol. 1 (Berlin: Hesse, 1920).
148 robert fink

1896 Grove, George, Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies, 3d ed. (London:
Novello, 1898).
1912 Schenker, Heinrich, Beethoven Neunte Sinfonie (Leipzig, 1912).
1920 Ernest, Gustave, Beethoven (Berlin: G. Bondi, 1920).
1927 Nef, Karl, Die Neun Sinfonien Beethovens (Leipzig, 1928).
1935 Downes, Olin, Symphonic Masterpieces (New York, 1935).
Tovey, D. F., Essays in Musical Analysis II (London: Oxford University,
1936 Riezler, Walter, Beethoven (Berlin: Atlantis, 1936).
1941 Rolland, Romain, Beethoven: Les Grandes Époques Créatrices, vol. 4 (La
Cathedrale Interrompue), 1 (La Neuvieme Symphonie) (Paris: Sahler,
1958 Sauer, Wilhelm, Beethoven und das Wesen in der Musik (Berlin: Hesse,
1980 Treitler, Leo, “History, Criticism, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,”
in Music and the Historical Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1989).
1981 Hopkins, Antony, The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven (London: Scolar
Press, 1981).
1982 Treitler, Leo, “ ‘To Worship that Celestial Sound’: Motives for
Analysis,” Journal of Musicology 1 (1982): 524–58.
1987 McClary, Susan, “Getting Down Off the Beanstalk,” Minnesota
Composer’s Forum Newsletter (February 1987).
1989 Taruskin, Richard, “Resisting the Ninth,” 19th-Century Music 12/3
(spring 1989): 241–56.
1991–95 Van den Toorn, Pieter. “Politics, Feminism, and Contemporary Music
Theory,” Journal of Musicology 9/3 (summer 1991): 1–37. Revised and
reprinted in van den Toorn, Music, Politics, and the Academy (Berkeley
and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995).
1991 McClary, Susan, “Getting Down Off the Beanstalk,” in Feminine
Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1991).

This essay is—obviously—inspired by and dedicated to Susan McClary. In the nearly
ten years it has been in gestation, it has benefited immensely from the direct input
and the indirect example of Joseph Kerman, Richard Taruskin, Mitchell Morris,
Judith Peraino, Gretchen Wheelock, Ralph Locke, Rose Subotnik, David Levy, Fred
Maus, Suzanne Cusick, Marion Guck, Cecilia Sun, Elisabeth Le Guin, Raymond
Knapp, Robert Walser, and Andrew Dell’Antonio.
1. “Artyfacts,” Guardian, 1 December 1995, p. T9. The anonymous sarcasm of the
Guardian reviewer is all the more depressing in that it repackages seminal misinfor-
mation from that most “respectable” of sources, Edward Rothstein of the New York
Times. It was Rothstein who, a few days before, in discussing (among other “new musi-
cological” publications) Feminine Endings, had allowed himself to reuse as if it came
beethoven antihero 149

from the book the infamous quote he had attacked several times before (“Musicologists
Roll Over Beethoven,” New York Times, 26 November 1995). The most charitable
explanation is that he had not yet actually read McClary’s work, a full four years after
its publication.
2. The talk in question, “The Feminist Critical Perspective on Musicology,” was
later published by Leo Treitler as “Gender and Other Dualities of Music History”
(Treitler 1993). To give Treitler credit, he seemed genuinely troubled by the effect
his decontextualized use of McClary’s words had on audiences in 1988, and made
significant and salutary changes in the way he framed her in his 1993 argument.
3. Suzanne Cusick might see this “effortless” moment of trans-gender intersub-
jectivity as rather less than innocent: “It is easy to understand why McClary’s work
would have seemed, at first, comprehensible to traditional musicologists in a way that
more explicitly women-centered musicology had not. . . . Because such an enterprise
can be immediately understood to rescue both women and men from disciplinary
practices that rigidly channel our relationships to sensual and bodily pleasures,
McClary’s feminist scholarship promises a kind of liberation for all of us. Thus it
promises a space for feminist men with a clarity that some other feminist musicolo-
gies do not have” (Cusick 1999, 487). As a once-traditional male musicologist radi-
calized by McClary’s writing, I would not deny that Cusick (whose work is no less
admirable than McClary’s) has my number. My only disclaimer is that I am just as
conscious of the equivocal position of “men in (musicological) feminism” as I intuit
her to be. I have tried to make some of my post-McClaryite gender allegiances clear
in the opening and closing pages of Fink 1998.
4. The critical reception of this recapitulation is treated at greater length, with
extensive selections from primary sources, in Fink 1994, 132–60. For a compendious
collection of early critical references to the Ninth, see Solie 1988. Contemporary ref-
erences to the Ninth in German musical periodicals are reproduced in Wallace 1986;
and a more general survey, covering some of the same ground as this study, is in the
Cambridge Handbook on the Ninth by Nicholas Cook (1993).
5. A short list of the accounts of the recapitulation passage (Beethoven, Ninth Sym-
phony, I, 301–99) on which the following discussion is based is provided in the appen-
dix at the end of this essay. The full text of these descriptions, in the original lan-
guages, can be found in Fink 1994, appendix A; all translations in the following
section are my own, except where otherwise noted.
6. Virtually all the emotion in Schenker’s study comes in the appendices to each
analytic section, where he brutally chastises the “Schwärmerei” of earlier critics. He
carries both Hugo Riemann and Hermann Kretschmar along with him to be ritually
beaten up at the end of each analytical section. Riemann he often dignifies by dis-
puting the earlier critic’s harmonic readings; he quotes Kretschmar’s descriptions
merely to ridicule what seemed to him a total lack of content.
7. By contrast, Schenker only mentions the timpani as an afterthought—because
their rhythm intermittently reinforces that of the theme (“In kompositorischer Hin-
sicht beachte man endlich noch den Rhythmus der Pauken in den Takten 304, 308,
310, die thematisch mitwirken”).
8. “Jetzt ist die Herrschermacht des Gedankens entschieden; er . . . steht . . .
zwölf Takte lang, unbeweglich wie ein Schreckensphantom, wie der trübflammendes
Erdgeist vor Faust stand, der ihn heraufbeschworen und nicht ertragen konnte, auf
150 robert fink

Fis–A–D, um sich im zwölften Takte—wieder auf dem Nebenmoment des vierten

Achtels—nach Es-dur und drei Takte weiter endlich nach dem Hauptton, nach D-
moll zu wenden und da als Hauptsatz zu vollenden. Vollenden?—das gewährt der
trübe Riesengeist nicht.”
9. “Im Lebensfluten, im Tatensturm / Wall ich auf und ab / Webe hin und her.
/ Geburt und Grab, / Ein ewiges Meer, / Ein wechselnd Weben, / Ein glühend
Leben” (Goethe, Faust, ll. 501–8 [ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Dou-
bleday, 1961]).
10. As it turns out, he agrees with Schenker that the ultimate function of the D
major is as V/iv in D minor; the crucial difference is his vivid sense of the confusion
that the chord’s initial non-resolution creates.
11. “alle Theile des Orchesters in wildem Kampfe aufeinander losstürzen,
während die Pauke 38 Takte lang zu furchtbarer Stärke anschwellend ihr d wirbelt,
da ist’s, als Thäte sich die Erde auf, Alles zu verschlingen, da ist’s als reichten selbst
die stärksten instrumentalen Mittel nicht aus, die übermächtige, dämonische Phan-
tasie des Meisters erschöpfend darzustellen!” Riemann 1880s.
12. “C’est le paroxysme de la tempête,—des trois apparitions du Dieu sur le Sinaï,
(comme il nous plait d’appeler le grand motif de quinte descendante) la plus envi-
ronée de foudres et d’éclairs. Mais pour la première fois, c’est en majeur que parle le
Tout-Puissant, sur les roulements répétés des timbales, comme un tonnerre; puis
brusquement, par une de ces variations de lumière chromatique, sur si bémol, par la
bémol et la naturel, il rentre dans son ré mineur originel, que n’ont cessé d’affirmer les
battements en triple croches des timbales. On est au coeur de l’ouragan. Les masses
sonores se heurtent avec fracas. En contrepoint, les bois s’opposent aux cordes; et les
éclairs s’entrecroissent, d’en haut, d’en bas.” Rolland 1941, 59–60.
13. Antony Hopkins’ book on the symphonies converts Tovey’s imagery back into
a passage redolent of Greipenkerl and Marx: “[the D major] is awe-inspiring in the
same way that a vision of the avenging angel would be; one’s eyes would be dazzled
by his radiance though one’s heart would quake with terror” (Hopkins 1981, 251–52).
14. “Hier erfolgt die Vereinigung der Strebungen aller Menschen, aller Völker,
der Menschheit unter dem Gesichtspunkt der ewigen Gesetze, der göttlichen Wel-
tordnung; das ist die Grundidee des ersten Satzes: das Weltringen der Gespaltenheit und
Vielfältigkeit des Lebens heraus zur göttlichen Harmonie.” Sauer 1958, 161–63. On
Adorno and late Beethoven see Subotnik 1991, 15–41.
15. It is this striving toward the eternal, the transcendental, that Richard Taruskin
accuses Roger Norrington of “resisting” in his 1989 review of Norrington’s recording.
We can note his sublimating concentration on the sound of the timpani (“the hor-
ripilating tattoo”) and chalk up another influential critic who hears the progression
at mm. 301–15 as a failure: “the very progression the first movement never gets to con-
summate. It is the progression the timpani tries so hard to insist on at the recapitu-
lation, but can never browbeat the bass instruments into vouchsafing: their unstable
F-sharp falls inexorably to F-natural, and Elysium is lost” (Taruskin 1989, 251).
16. Some credit must be given to Leo Treitler here. In two groundbreaking essays
from the early 1980s (“History, Criticism, and the Ninth” and “To Worship That Celes-
tial Sound: Motives for Analysis,” both in Treitler 1989), he used the Ninth Symphony
as the ground upon which to construct his own critique of formalist analysis. He felt
beethoven antihero 151

the “historical imagination” was better served by a looser, more phenomenological,

and more hermeneutically engaged analytical method. But his historical interest in
more flexible (and often somewhat sublimating) analytical explanations stopped
short of accepting the full-blown sublimating tendencies of McClary’s sexual-politi-
cal hermeneutic; the essay in which he attempts to come to terms with her reading
still has some striking moments of ambivalence and bad faith (Treitler 1993, 23–45).
See Fink 1994, 8–12; 148–50 for a fuller discussion of Treitler and the Ninth.
17. The term is Taruskin’s. See his critique of formalism and his discussion of the
twentieth century’s paradigmatic exercise in violence and signification in Taruskin
18. Rodolphe Gasché, “Violence and the Feeling of the Sublime,” Basileus 2, no.
2 (1999) [].
19. Wedekind originally called his “Monster-Tragedy” of 1892–94 Pandora’s Box;
the play was split, partially to evade the censors, into Erdgeist (1895) and Die Büchse der
Pandora (1904).
20. “Enthülle Dich! / Ha! Wie’s in meinem Herzen reißt! / Zu neuen Gefühlen
/ Alle meine Sinnen sich erwühlen! / Ich fühle ganz mein Herz dir hingeben! / Du
mußt! Du mußt! Und kostet’ es mein Leben!”; “Bist du es, der, von meinem Hauch
umwittert, / In allen Lebenstiefen zittert, / Ein furchtsam weggekrümmter Wurm?”
Goethe, Faust, scene i, ll. 476–81, 496–99 (trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Dou-
bleday, 1961).
21. I cannot agree with Treitler’s assertion that the Af/Gs comes from the An of
the preceding chord (“the outer voices drop a half-step to F and Af . . .” [Treitler
1980, 24]). Beethoven has deliberately blocked the possibility of hearing any A–Af
connection in m. 312: the A in the first flute and first oboe moves up to Bf on the sec-
ond beat, just to make it perfectly clear that the actual voice leading is A–Bf–D. The
tritone leap up in the first flute D–Af, linearly improbable as it sounds, is unmistak-
ably the “real” voice leading.
22. Beethoven is quite punctilious in the Missa about changing the key signature
within a movement; if a major “modulation” other than the usual move to V occurs
without a change in signature, that is a clear sign that the move is not to be consid-
ered structural. In relation to the Gloria, mm. 174–200, the “real” modulatory pro-
gression is not the third progression Bf to D (2f2s) at m. 190, but the simple rising
fifth Bf to F (2f1f) at m. 210, where the key signature does change.
23. It may be well to note that all “exotic” third-related secondary keys in
Beethoven sonata forms do not function in this sharp-denying way. In many earlier
cases, Beethoven’s secondary key was a sort of “super-dominant” like the mediant
major, much farther up the sharp side than V. The “Waldstein” sonata, which modu-
lates up from C major to E major, is a familiar example. Even a third drop may intro-
duce a sharping effect: thus the secondary key area of the “Hammerklavier” sonata (G
major) is a third lower than the tonic (Bf), but creates a net climb up of three sharps.
24. This somewhat arbitrary player count is derived from the 1989 Hogwood
recording (L’Oiseau-Lyre 425 517–2); cf. Treitler 1989, 21: “the role of the D root is
dampened by the continued sounding of the A in the violins and cellos.”
25. This local tension–release mechanism may mitigate the lack of any rigorous
dramatic voice-leading linkage in the 200-odd measures that span the second theme
152 robert fink

group in the recapitulation. One might quite reasonably doubt the experiential valid-
ity of this long-range connection. For I am not only claiming that the Is–° V/V–V–i
progression of mm. 531–39 is a provisional correction of the gnomic Is6–G6–(V)–i6
of mm. 312–15. I also need to assert that the actual melodic line Fs–Gs–A in those
later measures is heard as a straightened-out and successful version of the failed
Fs–Gs–A ascent in mm. 301–15—even though the earlier ascent’s very existence
depends on our perception of a highly abstract melodic link between Fs in the bass
and Af–An in the soprano.
But the skeptic need not rely on the evidence of my ears alone. We can call
another witness, disinterested, and perhaps even hostile: the Stufentheorist Heinrich
Schenker, as he is on record in his 1912 monograph. As example 4.6 attempts to
show, his harmonic analysis of these two passages implies this linear connection,
which he evidently at that time had no theoretical interest in pursuing.
Here is Schenker’s harmonic explanation of mm. 301–15:
[The tonic’s] major third Fs does not arise, as it might at first glance seem, from mode
mixture, but from a chromaticization leading to the soon to appear scale-step IV:
D minor: Is–IV
In effect: G minor: Vs–I

This last (IV) then actually appears in m. 312, although it is itself—as before—immedi-
ately chromaticized, as if scale-step V were actually what we were waiting for:
D minor: sIV–(V)

In effect: A maj/min: VII–(I)

. . . Therefore, what we actually have here is the progression, in D minor:
Is3–sIV[f7/3]–(V)–I .
Compare the above with Schenker’s analogous discussion of mm. 531–39:
[The tonic] pedal is decorated with the progression Is3–sIV–V in mm. 531–34—a pro-
gression that achieves repetition in mm. 535–38. . . . The winds carry a melodic line that,
considered by itself, seems strange, but in which we can easily discern the scale-step pro-
gression given above: the third of scale step I, Fs; the root of the raised scale-step IV, Gs;
and finally the root of scale-step V, A.
In both cases Schenker identifies the harmonic progression as Is3–sIV–V, and the
underlying bass motion as #3^–#4^–5^. In the later passage, he states explicitly that the
“strange” Fs–Gs–A melodic line is the simple result of transposing this succession of
chord roots into the soprano. It is hard to escape the conclusion that he heard the
earlier passage the same way: that we are supposed to follow a #3^–#4^–5^ root pro-
gression through the moment of recapitulation, whose strange melodic move from
Af to An is thus the result of a partial transfer of this conceptual bass line into the tre-
26. This assumes, of course, doubled winds as in Christopher Hogwood’s 1989
recording with the Academy of Ancient Music.
27. For one of the most impressive recorded reactions to this passage, listen to
Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1951 Bayreuth recording. As Taruskin (1989) pointed out in
“Resisting the Ninth,” he whips the ensemble into a frenzy that surpasses anything on
record in tempo, except perhaps his own 1942 recording in Berlin. By the end, as
pitch, intonation, and ensemble disintegrate under Furtwängler’s lash, the Dionysian
frenzy simply transcends “the musical.”
beethoven antihero 153

28. The original version of this sentence (Fink 1994, 206) lacked quotation
marks around the word “success.” At that time I was much more heavily invested in
Beethoven’s ability to create a viscerally exciting—and thus “successful”— form
based around dramatic moments of harmonic-linear failure (as I freely admitted; see
1994, 213–16). The goals of that earlier study were somewhat different than the pres-
ent one (I was more interested in Beethoven the Master of musical “Energy”); but the
intervening years have also brought a greater degree of critical distance from the
piece itself—and a more mature sense of what is culturally interesting about form in
a postmodern musical episteme.

Passion / Mirrors (A Passion for the

Violent Ineffable: Modernist Music
and the Angel/In the Hall
of Mirrors)
paul attinello

This discussion is intentionally split in two: the first part is an essay about the
subjective hearing of a particular body of music; the second is about the subjectivity of
writing that essay, refracted through the personal and social contexts that led to its cre-
ation. I’m not sure anyone can fairly examine the first without examining the second:
the subjectivity of listening always ought to remind us of the unavoidable subjectivity
of musicology itself.

part i. a passion for the violent ineffable:

modernist music and the angel
The educated and ‘proper’ view of the more difficult musical products of
modernism is that they represent experiments in organization, transforma-
tion, and sound. However, even the educated and sympathetic listener is fre-
quently struck by an unavoidable impression of violence, chaos, and
attempts to stretch human perception. The widespread denial of this sonic
violence suggests that it can be seen as a cultural symptom and, in fact, as a
distinguishing characteristic of modernist music at the point where it looks
into the abyss of the future. In a context where subjectivity might be accept-
able in a scholarly discussion, it is plausible to read this history for its feeling
or affect.
A validation of this symptom is its tendency to aim beyond mundane
understanding toward some ineffable quality, a kind of transcendence that
recalls the terror and shattering vision of both Rilke’s and Benjamin’s
angels—one annihilatingly beautiful, the other grappling with the detritus
of history. These links suggest the essentially mystical underpinnings of mod-
ernism, often ignored in analysis of its surface characteristics. I seek here to
identify metaphors of destruction, collapse, and transcendence in works by
passion / mirrors 155

composers such as Barraqué, Boulez and Maxwell Davies, looking for the way
in which impatience with the world as it is and a horror of the predictable
result in shattered sounds that force the listener to imagine a world beyond
the known. Such a world may be a common modernist trope: one that may
be suggested in sound, but which can only be inhabited by terrifying angels.

The Angel of Terror

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.
rilke 1984, 151

This, the beginning of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, is a poem that causes the earth
to crack open. Historically, this first stanza of a set of extraordinary poetic
experiments is the point where Rilke leaves behind the merely beautiful pic-
tures of his Symbolist work to create an image that is both a summary of
many aspects of nineteenth-century poetry and at the same time convinc-
ingly modern. It is thus tied, both chronologically and conceptually, to the
first of his Sonnets to Orpheus, with its then shocking venture into proto-Sur-
realism. The historical move is, however, only a part of the important shift
represented in the poem; Rilke, powerfully taking over a space of being that
is only obliquely suggested in his earlier poems, creates a vision of possible
existence that demands the demolition of everyday experience. The com-
plex, allusive world established in this new approach to the sublime thus
becomes an existential earthquake. The poetic earthquake is teased out into
verbal explanation, as it must be; but in music we have a more succinct, more
exact expression of such an earthquake: the explosive, apparently instanta-
neous accented chord that opens Boulez’s Pli selon pli.
This earthquake is characteristic of both of the times when modernism
shattered the existing landscape, first in the years before World War I and
then again after World War II. Rilke’s difficult language, hinting at realities
that are not quite accessible in words but which nevertheless insist on being
understood, opens up a future that will include both Pound and Wittgen-
stein, while the passionate demand for a new way of being invokes the sub-
sequent Heidegger. Although we are accustomed to separating out the time
spans of the figures and works involved, I need to breach period divisions in
order to tease out a shared vision that, I suggest, spans most of the century:
a vision of destroying the world to transcend it, of discovering a ‘passionate
ineffable’ beyond any normal experience. In that context, Rilke’s metaphors
156 paul attinello

may seem historically distant from the work of Boulez, and not a part of the
same cultural movement that produced the brittle explosion at the begin-
ning of Pli selon pli; but I assert that, at an imaginative level, they represent
the same relationship to reality. It should be clear that I am not terribly inter-
ested in tracing a chain of influences—either particular words or particular
images—that result in a series of directly comparable artistic products. I am
certainly not tracing images of angels that appear in the poetry of early mod-
ernism or the music of high modernism. I instead hope to define an impor-
tant constellation of desires, those passionate wishes to crack open the sky
and pass through to whatever may be on the other side.
The cluster of works that most clearly express such desires include some
of the classic works of musical high modernism. I suggest that it would be
useful for readers to go and hear the pieces I cite—even those they know
well—in order to remind them of the sensual impact of their experience as
sound, rather than as score, abstract memory, or theoretical construct. In
choosing these works I am aiming at characterizing, not the composition
degree zero aspect of works like Boulez’s Structures Ia, but the development
of a style of passionate violence that occurs on both sides of that zero point.
Accustomed as we are to the homily that the music of the 1950s was intended
to project an absence of meaning, I believe that we have ignored the evident
expressive results that are composed into such works, especially when they
are considered collectively. Indeed, so much avant-garde music of the 1950s
and 1960s, which was said to be designed to leave behind the past (whether
the past of music, the past of Europe, or the past of bourgeois stability), is
more a constantly refashioned attempt to blow up that past. It is easy to speak
of the fearsome or transcendent implications of specific staged or texted
works by Berio, Barraqué, Nilsson, and many others; but it also seems impor-
tant to acknowledge that many untexted musical works of high modernism
share a remarkably specific common sensibility. Although the invocation of
Rilke and Benjamin may seem historically inappropriate when speaking of
Boulez or Maxwell Davies, I believe I am justified in using their language; not
because they could be seen as specific influences on these composers, but
simply because they said it best.

To paraphrase the Rilke quoted above: if I suffer and cry out, it is hard to
believe that any infinite beings, caught up as they are in the structures of a
radically different reality, would even notice me. What is worse, if one of
them did notice, any intended help from such a being, symbolized in an
embrace, would destroy rather than save me. This sensually personal image
is used by Rilke to insist that what we call beauty—what, in fact, most of his
earlier poems celebrate—is really the edge of the sublime, and that the sub-
lime is the destructive but full-fledged form of beauty. So these terms, usu-
passion / mirrors 157

ally opposed, are shown to be identical—at least in this context. I suggest

that this identification of the two terms becomes a background concept in
much modernism, especially in music after 1945.
Rilke’s first Elegy continues its rapid flight through various possible modes
of being, but with frequent references to the awesome nature of existence
and our painful inadequacy to recognize even a small part of it:
whom can we ever turn to
in our need? Not angels, not humans,
and already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in
our interpreted world
rilke 1984, 151

Not only are we helpless against existence, but we are embarrassed even in
facing the animals, who are, however humbly, part of a real, immanent kind
of existence. Language, as well as the habit of speaking, art and representa-
tions of beauty, are merely attempts to stave off existence. This is also, of
course, a demand that we aim for the zero point of existence; although Rilke
does not try to express this by reaching a zero point of poetry (which could
be said to have been reached in Surrealist and Dadaist texts before the war,
and long before it was approached in music), he insists that endeavors out-
side that zero point are always essentially inadequate. Of course, one of the
advantages of musical expression is its ability to bypass the verbal, which
helps to distance us somewhat from our usual interpretations: although we
may still be lost in our minds rather than aware in the world, musical expres-
sion can sometimes point, with somewhat more virtual “reality” than poetry,
towards “real” experience.
Certain phrases in the next few stanzas present real understanding as just
as unavoidable as it is impossible: “there is night, when a wind full of infinite
space / gnaws at our faces,” or the lines on being unable to preserve the
image of the beloved because of “all the huge strange thoughts inside you /
going and coming and often staying all night” (Rilke 1984, 151). The second
elegy again flings terror into our faces, as it begins with the conclusion of the
first stanza of the first elegy: “Every angel is terrifying.” The end of the first
stanza of the second elegy moves it all ruthlessly closer:
But if the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars
took even one step down toward us: our own heart, beating
higher and higher, would beat us to death. Who are you?
rilke 1984, 157

This is an earthquake again, or perhaps (it can be imagined) still the same
earthquake in an infinitely extended moment: but, this time, the earthquake
happens inside of us.
158 paul attinello

The immense crack in the world that begins Pli selon pli is repeated at the
end of the piece, suggesting not so much any ABA structure as that the entire
work happens in a single instant. Both the first and last such ‘cracks in the
sky’ are associated with brief, aphoristic lines from Mallarmé, sung by the
soprano solo. In both cases, its detachment from the original poem makes
the action of each line—in the first case the gift of a poem, in the last the bit-
ter, surreal chaos of death—almost incomprehensible, and more of a magi-
cal invocation than a meaningful statement of any kind. Once again, in his-
torical terms, the linking of Boulez in 1957, Rilke in 1912, and Mallarmé in
1865 may seem unworkable; but I continue to claim that, in poetic and imag-
inative terms, it makes a kind of sense that is more important—and which
explains more of our need for, and usage of, these pieces—than any histor-
ical sense.

The Angel of History

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he
is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are
staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the
angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain
of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon
wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken
the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from
Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can
no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to
which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.
This storm is what we call progress. (W. Benjamin 1969, 257–58)

This frequently cited paragraph is a sensual shock among the complex asser-
tions of Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History —which were written in
1940, in the midst of a storm that would make such feelings relatively famil-
iar, especially in European artistic expression.
The painting itself, which was painted in 1920, purchased by Benjamin in
1921, and which hung in his various studies until he fled Paris in June 1940,
does not really illustrate Benjamin’s complex image in a definite or allusive
way. Klee’s angel floats in space, staring in a way that may be unsettling, but
which does not suggest any detailed metaphor of catastrophe, storm, or
debris. It is important to register the rhetorical shift in Benjamin’s third sen-
tence away from the description of the painting to a separate train of thought
only inspired by it. On the other hand, art historian and Klee specialist Otto
Werckmeister points out that the “angel of history” can be seen as a devel-
oped form of a meditation written twenty-five years earlier by Klee himself:
Today is the passage from yesterday to the present. In the great mine of forms
lie ruins from which one still partly hangs. They offer material for abstraction.
passion / mirrors 159

A broken field of unreal elements, for the creation of impure crystals. So it is

today. . . . I have long had this war in me. So, inwardly, it concerns me not at
all. To work myself out of my ruins, I had to fly. And I flew. In that demolished
world, I only spend my time in memory, as one thinks back occasionally. So I
am “abstracted with memories.”1

This suggests that Klee and Benjamin may have communicated with each
other about these feelings and ideas. Werckmeister analyzes the same paint-
ing from a different point of view, pointing out the hand-like wings and
apparent suspension in midair; but unexpectedly, after this physical descrip-
tion, he reaches a surprising conclusion: “with the Angelus Novus, the effort
to fly succeeds. . . . It may be taken as an image of the artist’s exaltation, by
means of abstraction, into a spiritual counterworld” (Werckmeister 1989,
241–42). Certainly, some kind of “counterworld” is common to all of the
texts and interpretations resonating out from this painting. Benjamin also
referred to Klee’s painting in writing at an earlier date, but despite the much
calmer political circumstances of the time, he interpreted it as representing
something that was terrifying without being evil. In his lengthy 1931 essay on
Karl Kraus, Benjamin celebrates the destructive instinct as a valid, even a
Promethean, foil to the creative instinct. This destructive instinct is at its
most valuable when life has become habitual:
And therefore the monster stands among us as the messenger of a more real
humanism. . . . He feels solidarity not with the slender pine but with the plane
that devours it, not with the precious ore but with the blast furnace that puri-
fies it. . . . One must have followed Loos in his struggle with the dragon “orna-
ment” . . ., or seen Klee’s New Angel, who preferred to free men by taking from
them, rather than make them happy by giving to them, to understand a
humanity that proves itself by destruction. (Benjamin 1979, 289)

So where, or what, is Benjamin’s angel? One of the fascinating things about

these dense images is their peculiar and essential rightness, which is depen-
dent on the fused resonance of the whole (as happens in good poetry) rather
than in the precise linear relationships of ideas. This dense resonance also,
of course, makes them tricky to parse. In any case, I would want to talk, not
about revolutionary politics, but about the possibility for redemption that
revolutionary politics can represent—which is, I think, not out of line when
one is speaking through Benjamin, or being spoken through by him.
For Benjamin’s angel, history is singular: it is the past as a whole, which
endlessly spews wreckage at him—a wreckage I interpret as being simply
itself, that is to say, tradition. At the same time, Paradise—which seems to
come from the same direction, and possibly even to be the same thing, as the
past—flings an unending storm at him, pushing him into a future that, Ben-
jamin implies, is terrifying but inescapable. The laconic coldness of the final
line, which bluntly identifies the storm (and implicitly the entire image) as
160 paul attinello

“progress,” makes the whole even more chilling, implying that we are always
already caught in this situation as our (modern) temporal reality. The frac-
tured, tangled mess of tradition and progress becomes an eschatological trap
that prevents the angel from either controlling or slowing his movement into
the future, or on the contrary returning to Paradise (where the past is per-
haps not merely wreckage). He is always already moving forward in time, as
are we.
The terrifying explosion that forces us forward in time, or at least a
response to the feelings created by such an image, suggest the eschatologi-
cal world of Barraqué with its resistance to movement and frozen, perpetual
reaction to awaited death and failure. While completing his famous piano
sonata in 1952, Barraqué wrote, angrily and satirically, of the trap he was
thereby creating for himself:
You see, in our time, what the “serial principle” actually means: a two-fold
abstraction, which both constructs and destroys. The creative act in its aesthetic
necessity remains incomprehensible, for one knows full well that it is not suf-
ficient to employ rows and place f and p signs in order to produce a valid work;
but in the moment when the spark ignites, one sets foot in a region which is
just as absurd as that where a rock turns into a man, where a man takes leave
of rationality against his will, and falls prey to irrationality and becomes insane.
As I wrote to Boulez, all of the present experiments are not very satisfying,
because all of these people are content when they have written a row and
placed a f or p and (the pinnacle of on the other hand) an accent or portato
on every note. Almost no one has RECOGNIZED the disturbing temperature
of our times, our historic truth. They don’t know that more than ever an under-
standing of the world in its totality is the only Possibility, and that outside of this
everything is not just incomplete, but totally Useless.2

The best example of Barraqué’s “historic truth” is the entire second move-
ment of the Sonata wherein, as Hodeir says,
Music cracks under the unhuman strain, disintegrates and is sucked into the
void. Whole slabs of sound crumble and vanish beneath the all-engulfing ocean
of silence, until only the twelve notes of the row remain, and even these are
plucked off, one by one (Hodeir 1961, 195).

The first movement of the same piece generates a powerfully changing

rhythmic field within serial bounds and, like many serial textures, creates an
aural effect of a seemingly infinite field of elements separated from each
other in extreme tension. I would assert, again, that this tension should not
be seen as merely technical, that is, as a tension between musical elements:
in “subjectively” listening to these sounds, it inevitably becomes the unbear-
able tension of time and of our awareness of the present, which is always slip-
ping away.
* * *
passion / mirrors 161

Naturally, the question arises: am I merely attempting to redefine expres-

sionism? Talking about expressionism is much simpler than talking about
whatever it is that I am seeking here. Although it is a bit tricky to bring musi-
cal expressionism into focus, because it is entangled with the technical con-
cepts of atonality and early twelve-tone theory, its more convenient incarna-
tions in the literary and visual arts allow us to lean on extensive discourse
from those fields to explain its psychological and spiritual aims. What I am
looking for is admittedly comparable to expressionism—perhaps closely
related to, but also distinct from it, since this different sensibility is not
rooted in a fascination with the Freudian unconscious.
Susan Sontag, in separating out certain modernist sensibilities, remarks
almost in passing:

There is a kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derange-

ment. . . . I am speaking, obviously, of a style of personal existence as well as of
a style in art; but the examples had best come from art. Think of Bosch, Sade,
Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Artaud, think of most of the important works of art of
the twentieth century, that is, art whose goal is not that of creating harmonies
but of overstraining the medium and introducing more and more violent, and
unresolvable, subject-matter. This sensibility also insists on the principle that
an oeuvre in the old sense (again, in art, but also in life) is not possible. Only
“fragments” are possible. . . . Clearly, different standards apply here than to tra-
ditional high culture. Something is good not because it is achieved, but
because another kind of truth about the human situation, another experience
of what it is to be human—in short, another valid sensibility—is being revealed.
. . . The . . . sensibility . . . of high culture . . . is basically moralistic. The . . .
sensibility . . . of extreme states of feeling, represented in much contemporary
“avant-garde” art, gains power by a tension between moral and aesthetic pas-
sion (Sontag 1966, 287).

A musical image of such tension can be found in the ending of the last move-
ment of Maxwell Davies’ First Symphony. Although the work is “permeated
by the presence of the sea and the landscape of this isolated place [Orkney]
off the north coast of Scotland,”3 the effect is not in any way pastoral, but is
instead eerie and vastly transcendent. The texture of the symphony is fast,
complex and—like that of the Barraqué Sonata—frequently on the edge of
perceivable coherence; if this is indeed a natural world, it is one that is
already too infinite and too dangerous for us to possess, or even fully to
grasp. In such a context, the extraordinary drive of the final passage, which
follows a long passage of slow but increasing movement, suggests to me an
attempt to reach beyond the world toward something far beyond physical
experience; the tangled line rising from the basses up through the orchestra
explodes through the ceiling of audible sound to progress to some other
inconceivable place, past the limits of time and mere understanding. Why
162 paul attinello

might a discussion as subjective as this one be in any way meaningful—or

even, perhaps, important?
The music of high modernism has become, over the decades, institu-
tional, acceptable, safe. Boulez never did blow up any opera houses, and
instead constructed the most elaborate and authoritative of modernist musi-
cal institutions. Archives of modern music manuscripts are built, and to
some extent run, like bank vaults, the notation of elaborate bursts of imagi-
nation transformed into expensive fetishes. Barraqué is dead and largely for-
gotten; Maxwell Davies, increasingly a celebrity, calls himself “Max” and
writes audience-pleasing concerti. Exhibitions of scores and letters, concerts
dutifully attended as educational penance, and glossy, problem-free new
recordings of modernist “classics” are a predictable part of our world. And,
of course, all of the most bizarre and shocking works eventually appear in the
final chapters of our history texts and anthologies.
However, despite all of this—and admittedly among various other mean-
ings and intentions—a crucial aspect of this music remains its attempt to
blow the world apart. The never fully comprehensible or manageable explo-
sions of serialism, and the disturbing qualities of many of the works of high
modernism, can never be completely plowed back into the museum of musi-
cal history; they can never, in fact, have all of their edges removed, not even
by the powerful forces of theory, pedagogy, grants, or publicity. And I think
we may be very lucky in that.

part ii. in the hall of mirrors

This—by which I mean both part 2 and the combined article made up of
both parts—is, inevitably, a work in progress. That sounds like an apology,
the kind we so often hear (and say): implicitly it suggests that the forthcom-
ing discourse is not the perfected object that it intends to be. It implies that
the flaws or seams of the piece haven’t been covered over; sometimes the
footnotes aren’t complete or the ending is a bit fuzzy; in reading my own not-
quite-finished work I may hear sour notes—sentences that don’t quite work,
ideas that no longer seem fully valid, or that I have disproved or diverged
from since first writing them. This introduces reflexivity—a look in the mir-
ror—appropriately because, of course, that’s where the reality of writing, as
well as its musical object, actually operates. No matter what I do, no matter
what effort I put into the work, I remain unavoidably a human being creat-
ing a specific discourse in fragments of time between periods of sleep and
activity, and among numerous other habits and projects, all of which distract
me from intermittent epiphanies and change the meaning of the sentences,
even if the words themselves do not change. As a former performer, I know
that I can use the same words to tell slightly different stories, that each time
I read a paper it is a different narrative: the vectors represented by the words
passion / mirrors 163

can always operate at different angles to each other, and the resultant super-
structure heads off in different, and sometimes unexpected, directions.
And, just as every live performance of the paper is somewhat different, so is
every reading of any “final” published version—all of the complex or unpre-
dictable experiences that constitute reality contribute to the discussion of a
particular body of music and my understanding of it.
Various such contributions led to the creation of part 1, which in part 2
becomes an object of study—the discussion is itself subject to discussion. My
youthful fascination with the dark sensuality of high modernist music, which
included such works as Le marteau sans maître and Blomdahl’s Aniara, a fas-
cination rediscovered after years of study, is the original foundation of the
article “A Passion for the Violent Ineffable.” Indeed, my desire to tease out
that particular quality led to my dissertation on some of the more chaotic
and bizarre works of the 1950s and 1960s. The original impulse should, ide-
ally, be the pure source of part 1; but the source is muddied, unpredictably
altered, not only over time but by peripheral circumstances such as the con-
ditions of writing—a dorm room in Surrey, another in Turku, my expecta-
tions of a British audience and a Scandinavian one, and the imagined or real
reactions of various listeners or readers, who may or may not have been, at
the time, thinking of something else entirely.
We are accustomed to discounting many of these circumstances but, in my
imagination, which is of course where the writing occurs, these aspects remain
acutely present. And we do work with our imaginations, there’s no doubt
about it: although I often explain the object of our subjectivities to my stu-
dents as “cultural products,” that is a disappointingly cold, and therefore inac-
curate, phrase. What we are working on is an art form, and one that impels
an inner world of feelings and dreams. I suggest that that is why we started
working with music in the first place, way back before we entered graduate
programs, got degrees, or dug ourselves into jobs. Indeed, as we are educated
into academe, in a discipline that has been heavily influenced by the sci-
ences—that is, by a discipline that still prefers to lean toward what is pejora-
tively called “positivism”—we learn to control our various imaginings. We
don’t entirely ignore them, of course, except in very few cases—one might
consider the graduate student forced to write a dissertation documenting
music in which he or she has no interest as an extreme example. We sublimate
our imaginative impulses and ideas, sneakily arranging topics and projects to
allow ourselves to talk about things that fire us up, all the while pretending to
be purely scholarly and coolly objective. More broadly, we become socialized
into subgroups that encourage agreement on certain permitted infractions of
the norm: thus the attachment to arcane mystery that one sees in many
medieval scholars, the passionate and slightly guilty liberalism expressed by
many ethnomusicologists, and—of course—the mathematical formalities
affected by scholars of my own period, the period of high modernism.
164 paul attinello

Ultimately, this is a form of reader-response criticism, but one where I

don’t wish to try to create an image of the ideal reader of Boulez and Stock-
hausen, but instead to better understand how we read, reread, and ultimately
reconstruct the objects of our own work. This is not about our possible sub-
jectivity in relation to the music—which is, in a peculiar way, an objectified
subjectivity; instead it is a more complex subjectivity in relation to our own
subjectivity. This is like living in a hall of mirrors, to invoke the name of
Blomdahl’s cantata, and the cycle of poems by Lindegren for which it is
named.4 And when there are mirrors on all sides, they don’t merely reflect
the objects standing between them, but also each other, and the reflections
of their own reflections . . .

The First Mirror

Part 1 was originally written in and for a conference held in England. Its
structure and language were affected by that context: after all, an American
academic in England is often conscious of jumping higher, “Oxbridge” hur-
dles, of being more careful than the locals perhaps need to be, of making
sure that, beneath the structures of one’s main argument, one includes a
subliminal rebuttal of the expected prejudice that an American scholar will
be naïve, uncultured, a bit sloppy—hopelessly, in a word, colonial.
These colonial fears and resentments are not entirely baseless. For instance,
although many of the conference discussions were friendly and open to spec-
ulation, some were decidedly not. After one paper discussing Kurtág’s analy-
sis of a Bartók piece—an analysis that was clearly faulty in relation to Bartók,
but also clearly of interest in understanding Kurtág’s compositional inten-
tions—there were no fewer than five responses that began with the phrase:
“We must be very careful not to . . . ” f(x). Assertions were made about the
apparent danger of this analysis that seemed to me quite absurd: what were we
afraid of—that young girls and old ladies might get hold of this analysis and be
“ruined” in some peculiar way? These warnings, although they may have
become less common in musicological circles during the 1990s, both in
Britain and America, can be extended to any discussion of interpretation, spec-
ulation, and subjectivity. Is not all such work dangerous? Another facet of this
danger came up in a conversation with a senior colleague who cut short my
enthusiastic story of meeting another musicologist, dismissing the absent one
as a “phrase-maker.” This worried me, because often I feel as though I am
myself a phrase-maker: if I could not say it distinctively, gracefully, and in a way
to convince the most recalcitrant reader, would my argument actually make
any sense? Is there any “objective truth” behind the impact of the words them-
selves? How many ways are there to close down discussion, speculation, inter-
pretation—and how many of those ways do some academics employ to keep
their colleagues from discovering new ideas or unexpected approaches?
passion / mirrors 165

My anxiety over the British professional reception of part 1 was actually

one important source of the passion of that paper: I was frankly nervous
about putting over my argument in that context, and wrote accordingly.
This was also true because, at that particular conference, a number of other
speakers made presentations that (more carefully) circled around the idea
of interpreting modernism. Most of them followed more traditional, more
historically focused, courses than I did. I was in fact sharply intimidated the
day before my paper by someone taking Boulez apart in terms of Lyotard:
would my poetic, demented vision of high modernism be shot utterly to
pieces by a surging crowd of critical, and of course quite British, senior aca-
But it wasn’t. In fact, and for me quite unexpectedly, they liked it. Sud-
denly colleagues wanted to have breakfast with me, to ask elaborate and sur-
prisingly expressive questions about exact points of the paper, even later to
write me e-mails about it—evidently they thought I had said something inter-
esting that they needed to hear. Much as I would love to flatter myself, I find
it difficult to believe that they responded this way because of any innate
genius in my work. Instead, is it possible that in musicology we are simply
lacking expressions of imagination, of subjectivity, so much that we’d rather
hear Benjamin and—out of all the more possible, citeable, “great” names—
Rilke? That we’d rather hear poetry, instead of historical documentation?
Has our discipline gotten, perhaps, a bit too dry for its subject matter, or
even too dry for us to sustain interest, even in our own work?

The Second Mirror

An interesting, peripheral but surprisingly well-known, work of high mod-
ernism is Blomdahl’s opera Aniara, based on Harry Martinson’s poem cycle
of the same name. The story is a science fiction tour de force about a space-
ship that is thrown off course and ends up heading into emptiness with no
hope of return. The opera, based on fairly schematic patterns that empha-
size the mechanistic mathematics of serialism, is nevertheless deeply involv-
ing. Martinson’s dramatic gestures symbolize a universe where we are lost,
and terrified of being lost, where we are faced with emptiness and our inad-
equacy to respond to it. Martinson’s eerie fourth poem, one of the most suc-
cessful in the English translations, runs as follows:

That was how the solar system closed

its vaulted gateway of the purest crystal
and severed spaceship Aniara’s company
from all the bonds and pledges of the sun. . . .
Though space vibrations faithfully bore round
our proud Aniara’s last communiqué
166 paul attinello

on widening rings, in spheres and cupolas

it moved through empty spaces, thrown away.
In anguish sent by us in Aniara
our call sign faded till it failed: Aniara.
martinson 1999, 36

Although, when I was younger, I had no access to a recording of Blomdahl’s

opera, a suite from the work was released on the flip side of the popular
American recording of music used for Kubrick’s movie 2001.5 The suite has
several impressive passages, including some rather spooky concrète and
bizarrely satirical pseudo-jazz; but the most striking music is right at the
beginning, which presents sounds that are freezingly cold and distant,
schematically arranged notes of a Großmutterakkord that suggest the emo-
tionless, intentionless passage of particles through empty space. I still turn
to these musical images when life and other people seem too circumscribed
or suffocatingly predictable—when our everyday world shows its triviality.

The Third Mirror

Who would write about such stuff, about the airless serialism of the fifties and
sixties? Who, in another sense, would want to? That question is not neces-
sarily sarcastic: it is a part of the intent of this discussion—a discussion that
is personal, even uncomfortably so—to outline one kind of person who
might care about “such stuff.” The answer for me, an answer that became
increasingly obvious over the years, is that I am fascinated with networks of
masculinity, authority, and tradition—but only when they are in trouble,
when they are exposed or collapsing or forced into change. In my case, this
may have something to do with growing up gay in a 1970s “clone culture”
where short hair and insistently masculine fashions were the norm. This sets
me off from other colleagues in gender studies whose work focuses more on
flamboyance or androgyny. It is important for me to understand why certain
things fascinate me, why certain things demand study, while others are
merely matters that can be considered by other musicologists, if they choose.
I believe that most musicologists of any bent choose their topics of study and
discussion through reference to some inner, sometimes secret world, some
view of the universe that impels them toward certain questions and not oth-
ers. The fiction that we stand on a level plain of discourse and rationally
choose the topics that most need attention is merely that—a fiction.
The question of who would write about a given topic is linked to a broader
question: who are we, writing and reading academic papers at the turn of the
millennium? Are our activities pertinent to anyone, in any generalizable
way? It is evident that this particular discussion is useful to me, because I can
work through my own relationship to myself and my work. That was, ulti-
passion / mirrors 167

mately, one of the functions of the article “Performance and/or Shame”

(Attinello 1995), which unexpectedly turned into an exploration of things
I’d known but had almost forgotten about my personal history. It may be of
interest to know that this exploration was remarkably useful for me: I can
state, with psychoanalytic certainty, that my relationship to my own past, and
thus of course my future, changed quite a bit over the process of writing that
paper. But the question of How Useful Is Our Work—which may be rooted
in old ‘relevance’ arguments from the 1970s—continues to bother me: espe-
cially in the past few years, after finally getting a job, etc., following a long
and messy indenture, it often appears that I have become a part of a machine
that mass-produces presentations and publications as though in a factory. I
was amazed this spring when a paper that had been rejected for a conference
was requested for the published proceedings of that conference; the editors
refused, then accepted, the article on the basis of the same one-paragraph
abstract. I couldn’t help thinking: they need to fill out the book, don’t they?
They need to make a commercial product with the correct number of
pages, and don’t much care what is on those pages. It is as though the strug-
gle to make a piece of work worthwhile, or at least good enough to justify the
time and energy to read it, is actually superfluous to the needs of academic
So: of what use to you is the discussion of my background experiences, of
my reasons for writing? One critical concern comes from a comment I heard
in a writing workshop, after someone expressed enthusiasm for a young nov-
elist’s story of his childhood: “Well, it’s fascinating to read about anybody’s
childhood.” Are my experiences in writing part 1 of (some) interest merely
because they are experiences, and thereby offer a frisson of drama in a con-
text that usually lacks such thrills? Or are experiences actually transferable,
and are our own lessons somehow learnable by other readers—such as your-
I believe that each of us operates within a particular window of under-
standing, whose borders are the limits of our backgrounds and predilections.
There are things—musics, methods, interpretations—that we find innately
difficult to understand because their implications are inconsistent with deci-
sions we have made about ourselves and (our version of) the universe. There
are other things we simply cannot grasp because our experience, and what
we have learned from it, cannot stretch far enough; and finally there are
things, too many I think, that we would prefer not to understand (or would
prefer to pretend not to understand) because any expressed comprehension
of them might be inconsistent with things we have said or implied, which
then might make us seem foolish. Even when faced with an exciting or sim-
ply plausible new idea, we too often try to avoid any appearance that we
might ever have changed our minds—a common concern for the writer and
scholar, as others might be examining our work for consistency. So, as a
168 paul attinello

group of scholars engaged in an ongoing discourse: what is the window of

understanding that we might possibly see in musicology, or in any kind of
aesthetics, analysis, or interpretation? Is it plausible to enlarge that window,
as on a computer screen, or at least to acknowledge the differences between
our individual limitations, such that a given group (or discipline) could
reach a larger understanding than any single member of it? (Of course, the
discipline of ethnomusicology managed these questions rather well during
the methodological discussions of the 1980s. But it remains a challenge
always waiting to be re-met by any group or individual scholar.)
Part of my experience of teaching various genres of twentieth-century
Western music in Hong Kong was the realization that my students do not
have the cultural expectations that would make the stresses and fractures
of that music self-evident to them. Even if I am imposing a particularly vio-
lent interpretation on high modernism in part 1, it is not, I think, very
controversial to claim that much of the music of our century expresses
some kind of rage, rebellion, or at least doubt, aligned against tradition,
predictability or grand narratives. Since my students don’t have any
instinctive sense of this rage—their own culture is constituted entirely dif-
ferently—none of it quite makes sense to them, not Boulez, and not Nir-
vana.6 Their response to dissonance at all levels seems to be more of a
“culinary” interest in interesting sounds, rather than a sense of cultural
disruption. In fact, when I use tunes like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in my
Music Appreciation class, or joke about music that “sucks,” I am making
references that mean little to them—and whose cynicism and brutality
leaves them wondering why anyone would want to play or study this

The Fourth Mirror

This essay, and the music that impels it, inevitably bring up questions of
rigor. At least, they inevitably bring it up if you care about arguing fairly: if
one is willing to polemicize or sway opinion without concern as to whether
arguments are conscientious, then rigor is no problem. But that suggests
irresponsibility: rigor is the way that we make our actions correct in line with
some authoritative (or authoritarian?) expectation. As for the music of high
modernism, most of its most important disagreements were over the place
and constitution of rigor, creating a bizarre context where a piece of music
could be dismissed on logical grounds alone.
Questions for and against rigor bring up the problem of precision, the
concept of embedding one’s statements in a larger and hopefully more
secure armature of thought, as opposed to exploring the anecdotal, the
local. But that is to replace real experience, actual data, with concepts,
thereby reifying the universe into something that might be, or might seem,
passion / mirrors 169

consistent. This is also affected by our view of the linearity of a given argu-
ment. In reading and listening, we repeatedly ask ourselves: what’s missing
in this paper, or in that paper? When has too much that is important been
excluded, or too many tangents been included? Chances are that we will
judge rigor more exactingly than any other parameter of value—such as
interest, involvement, contribution to the culture (or merely to the existing
literature). Sometimes this judgment is unfair, as when scientific parameters
are imposed on contexts where they are inappropriate (such as, frequently
enough, in music).
Rigor, and its implied correlate consistency, is of course not only a
method of controlling ideas and arguments. It is also a means of avoiding
boredom on the part of the reader or listener: after all, how many people
have disconnected or inconsistent ideas that are actually interesting? Not
many, that’s certain. But is this merely human nature, a common aspect of
the human condition, or is it our modernist education hampering us in our
work? Has our training made it impossible for us to think freely—has it
reduced us to two alternatives, the rigorous and the lazy (with a bow to
Deleuze and Guattari, as these can be reinterpreted as the paranoid and the
schizoid), with the latter always inadequate? Certainly, we allow composers
a certain leeway that isn’t allowed to scholars, the idea seeming to be that the
creative mind can’t be bothered with consistency. Why, then, should the
scholarly mind be so concerned about it? And, to bring the argument back
to part 1: what is our relationship to rigor, and what can it be, if we are reflect-
ing on an era where avant-garde scientism is the fashion, such as the 1950s?
Do we pretend not to notice the short haircuts and dark suits in all the group
photographs from Darmstadt?

The Fifth Mirror

When mirrors face each other, the objects reflected in them become smaller
and less distinct until the mirrors seem merely to reflect themselves. And
strangely enough, in the processes of living and writing, subjective relation-
ships to things that seem to be entirely separate—different parts of one’s
life, different personae, different masks—reflect each other in unantici-
pated ways.
Over the past few years, cropping up intermittently in notes I take in inter-
views, in archives, even at conferences, the music of high modernism—
Darmstadt, Donaueschingen, serialism, the avant-garde—and the concepts
of gay and lesbian studies keep intersecting in unexpected ways. It is a badly-
kept secret that many of the figures of the post-war avant-garde were gay—
Boulez, Bussotti, Cage, Henze, and Metzger, just for example. Discussions
with some of these and their colleagues show clearly that a network of sex-
ual relationships and identities, together with the gleeful, shocked, or dis-
170 paul attinello

gusted reactions to them by others, impacted upon many of the crucial aes-
thetic decisions and schisms of the 1950s and 1960s.7
This conflates several uncomfortable problems in subjectivity: how much
am I allowed to talk about this? It’s a dangerous topic, after all, and some of
the wealthier composers have lawyers. And can I manage to remain cool and
unattached, and manage to seem cool and unattached, in relation to this sub-
ject matter? Can I avoid the impulse to play “IMRU”—the game of claiming
about almost any famous figure, “Oh, you know he’s gay”? Is everything
infected by possible motives and agendas, such that any statement on a topic
that matters to the speaker is always suspect?

The Sixth Mirror

We’re not supposed to psychologize: psychologizing is forbidden, psycholo-
gizing is bad; because we are not professional therapists we’re not allowed
to comment on, for instance, the emotional reason that a given piece of
music goes a certain way. But clearly psychology is the science of this century,
that new view of everything that was so largely missing before the period of
early modernism. Clearly, our understanding of daily life is contingent on
our assumption that people’s patterns, feelings, and unconscious forces drive
practically all of their behavior—including, of course, composition, inter-
pretation, and even musicological writing.
In this context, I find the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari (and, of course,
part of their scholarly validation is the fact that Guattari is a ‘real’ psycholo-
gist) extremely useful. One of their basic ideas is that our everyday patterns
of thinking are not entirely different from those that occur in extreme states
of paranoia and schizophrenia. Certainly, in studying something that
arouses such deep passions as music, a sensitivity to the mindset implied by
a given creative product would be very useful, even if that mindset seems a
bit strange or extreme. Sass, another ‘real’ psychologist, has written about
modernist literature and art in terms that suggest at least one interpretation
of Rilke’s angels, and also suggest the entire problem of transcendent diffi-
culties in modern music:

Many schizophrenic patients “delightedly believe that they have grasped the
profoundest of meanings; concepts such as timelessness, world, god and death
become enormous revelations which when the state has subsided cannot be
reproduced or described in any way—they were after all nothing but feelings.”
It is understandable that such concerns might often reduce a person either to
silence or to oblique and vague attempts at description. . . . At least some of the
statements that strike observers as woolly or empty philosophizing . . . may
thus be attempts—sometimes inept but sometimes not—to express concerns
that are just too all-encompassing or too abstract to be stated in clear and spe-
cific terms, even by the most clear-minded of speakers. (Sass 1992, 191)
passion / mirrors 171

It is of course important to remember, in any psychological discussion

related to an art form, that one is not analyzing a person so much as an
image of a persona—that is, if one reaches conclusions about a particular
cultural product, those conclusions may not apply to other aspects of the
person who created it. Virginia Woolf said that we are all a thousand differ-
ent people inside; in our everyday lives, it is the people around us who
demand consistency in our behavior, which we supply in the form of a pre-
dictable persona. But it would be a mistake to infer, as many do, that our per-
sonalities are consistent . . . as it would be to assume that a given composer
should project an image of the same persona in different works.
In the interpretation of a certain sensibility via Rilke and Benjamin in part
1, my context is perhaps more spiritual and transcendent than psychologi-
cal. However, a useful psychological counterpart would be Jung’s thesis of the
power of the unconscious—the claim that imagination, art, and spiritual
change have real rather than illusory power, that art is not merely the subli-
mation of something else, that the battles, losses, and victories we experience
in dreams are not mere fantasy, but have real effect.

The Seventh (and Last) Mirror

To what extent does this become intellectual masturbation?
Who, after all, cares if I am interested in my own subjectivity? How can we
discuss our own imaginative backgrounds—our feelings, our various levels of
reasons for doing what we do—in a way that doesn’t make a reader drop the
book in boredom? One useful aspect of this is that people who have not
talked much about their imaginations, about their subjectivities, about their
selves, tend to do a much clumsier job of it than those with more experience.
This was frequently clear in discussions among members of the Gay & Les-
bian Study Group of the American Musicological Society in its early days:
people who evidently hadn’t thought much about their own sexuality some-
times stood up to present the meeting with the most astonishing statements.
This must be accepted in a group context, of course, because there must be
room to speak, to develop a group dynamic. But the less experienced seem
to have difficulty in distinguishing what is interesting to themselves from
what might be interesting to others: they have become accustomed to the
academic distinction of objective and subjective (despite its somewhat illu-
sory nature), but still have trouble distinguishing the generalizable or the
communicable from the private or the contingent, from their more personal
or accidental memories and wishes.
This is perhaps the most useful thing to consider at every point in a dis-
cussion of subjectivity: who cares? Does anyone care about what you want to
say, or is it something that has only private resonance? And of course, some
172 paul attinello

things which are utterly private can nevertheless be communicated if they

are situated within a larger discussion . . .
Most importantly, a discussion of subjectivity should always, at least
eventually, end. You can’t live in a permanently self-conscious state—you
can’t dance if you’re always looking at your feet. It is useful to think about
subjectivity frequently enough to remind yourself of its reality: but ulti-
mately it is always necessary to stop analyzing oneself, to break the mirrors,
and act.

Versions of part 1 were read in July 1999 at the Third Triennial British Musicological
Societies 1999 Conference in Surrey; in October 1999 at the Skagerak Network sem-
inar Självreflexivitet i musikforskningen (Self-reflexivity and Musicology) in Turku,
Finland; and in April 2000 at the annual national conferences of the Musicological
Society of Australia and New Zealand Musicological Society in Sydney. A version of
part 2 was given as a continuation of part 1 at the Skagerak Network seminar; I am
grateful for their invitation to write it.
1. Quoted in Werckmeister 1981, 98; my translation. “Heute ist der gestrige-
heutige Übergang. In der großen Formgrube liegen Trümmer, an denen man noch
teilweise hängt. Sie liefern den Stoff zur Abstraktion. Ein Bruchfeld von unechten
Elementen, zur Bildung unreiner Kristalle. So ist es heute. . . . Ich habe diesen Krieg
in mir längst gehabt. Daher geht er mich innerlich nichts an. Um mich aus meinen
Trümmern herauszuarbeiten, mußte ich fliegen. Und ich flog. In jener zertrüm-
merten Welt weile ich nur noch in der Erinnerung, wie man zuweilen zurückdenkt.
Somit bin ich ‘abstrakt mit Erinnerungen.’ ”
2. Quoted by Heribert Henrich, translated by Mark Bruce, in booklet for Boulez:
Troisième Sonate / Douze Notations / Barraqué: Sonate pour Piano / Pi-Hsien Chen (Telos
Records TLS 006), 7.
3. [N.a.], booklet, Maxwell Davies: Symphony no. 1 (Collins 14352), 1995.
4. Karl Birger Blomdahl and Erik Lindegren, I speglarnas sal/In the Hall of Mirrors
(Caprice [LP]), 1972.
5. Music from 2001: A Space Odyssey/Suite from Aniara (Columbia MS 7176), 1968.
This album was apparently taken off the market as a result of Ligeti’s lawsuit against
Columbia for using his music without permission; a Deutsche Grammophon record-
ing, for which Ligeti did receive royalties, replaced it on the American market. The
DGG recording had no Blomdahl on it.
6. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nevermind (DGC), 1991.
7. These ideas are greatly expanded in an essay I have co-written with David
Osmond-Smith, “Gay Darmstadt: Flamboyance and Rigor at the Summer Courses for
New Music,” which will appear in the Proceedings of the Second Biennial International
Conference on 20th-Century Music, ed. Keith Potter, Arnold Whittall, and Christopher
Mark, published by Ashgate in 2004.

Uncertainty, Disorientation,
and Loss as Responses to
Musical Structure
joseph dubiel

What I like best about the problematic notion of musical “structure” is the
attention it can direct to the constructedness of musical identities. By the
identity of a musical thing, I mean principally how it sounds; by saying that
such an identity is constructed, I mean that how a musical thing sounds is
engendered by relationships in which we understand that thing to partici-
pate. And by relationship I mean any kind of juxtaposition, contrast, or affin-
ity—that is, my idea of musical relationship is not constrained by connota-
tions of orderly or logical progression. An unprepared departure from what
a passage has been doing is every bit as relational as the fulfillment of an
implication; so, for that matter, is an event that resists characterization in the
terms that have previously been in play, and invites reconceptualization of
everything heard so far.
With a notion of “structure” as inclusive as this, it is not clear that any par-
ticular kind of listening experience can usefully be picked out as the hearing
of “structure.” Anything we hear might be—must be—significantly the result
of “structure” in the inclusive sense. If such a thing as “structural” listening
is to be reified at all, then perhaps it is not to be defined by any characteris-
tic of the listening; perhaps it could better be identified as a certain way of
thinking about listening. It might be a kind of listening that involves wanting
to make the way in which one’s experience is elicited an object of apprecia-
tion in itself. The distinctive feature of such listening might be a certain kind
of self-monitoring, motivated by a certain kind of wonder—wonder that
sounds can do that. As a composer, I always have a specific interest in notic-
ing how it’s done, alongside noticing it done; but even when I’m off duty I
like having room in my listening mindset to marvel at the fact that such mul-
tifarious experience can be elicited by arrangements of noises. To prevent
misunderstanding, I should specify that I do not want to set up a dichotomy
174 joseph dubiel

between imperceptible (or anyway unperceived) “structure” and perceived

effect; the relevant sort of contrast is between different kinds of perceptibil-
ity, different terms of conceptualization for what is sensed. Wonder is at the
different kinds of conceptualization that the same phenomena can sustain.
Almost certainly, “structure” is not a good word to use for an idea as inclu-
sive as I favor. The word is a magnet for needlessly restrictive connotations,
which I have had to fight off practically from my first mention of it here:
“structure” as pattern, as logical consecution, as the satisfaction of a require-
ment (otherwise the music falls to pieces), as validation (nothing is done
“merely for its own sake”). My complaint is not only that this is an oddly nar-
row range of musical possibilities to pick out; it is more specifically that such
picking out leaves room for—in fact, appears designed to leave room for—the
notion that some significant part of what happens in music might be other
than “structural”: “ornamental” or “coloristic” or “expressive.” The idea is
suppressed that ornament and color and expression are, among other
things, aspects of “structure” in the inclusive sense, the sense of identities
engendered by relationships. And insofar as the various supposed opposites
of “structure” may be taken as shallow or frivolous, as opposed to deep and
serious, the more restricted understanding of “structure” also tempts us—
particularly those of us who have made it our business to seem (and, if pos-
sible, to be) intelligent in our interaction with music—to bend our experi-
ence of music (at least our representation of it, but therefore probably also
our experience) in the deep and serious direction; so that listening well to
music can be presented as more like alertly following a train of thought than
like appreciating the qualities of something.
The idea of “structural” listening easily goes wrong, then, through a com-
pounding of a limited idea of “relationship,” as similarity and regulation,
with the expectation that the experiences engendered by these relationships
will share the character of the relationships themselves: listening then
becomes the seeking of experiences that have that limited “relational” char-
acter. “Structure” is expected to inhabit musical experience as a sort of tone
of rationality—paradoxically (as Marlon Feld put it) a kind of affect. I see no
reason to make this a privileged kind of musical experience, or even to
accept it as an adequately defined kind. The invitation to make such a mis-
take is what I like least about the notion of “structure.”
I hope in this essay to expose and disarm this booby trap. I want to
describe a few musical experiences that have something to do with “struc-
ture” in the sense that I like (that I can show to be “structural” in that sense)
but that don’t have the character of “structure” about which I have just
expressed reservations. They are not experiences like following a line of rea-
soning, understanding implications fulfilled and conclusions drawn—in
some cases, they are not even much like knowing what’s going on. And more:
they don’t necessarily have the character of the specific “structural” attribu-
uncertainty, disorientation, and loss 175

tions that I set up to support them. That is, the experiential reports do not
necessarily have the qualities, or the dynamics, or concern themselves with
the same entities, as the technical reports that I develop alongside them. So
even if you’re already with me in being over the idea of “structure” as order,
there is something this essay can offer you, namely a particular look at the
possible discrepancy between an attribution of “structure” and the experi-
ence, presumably of this “structure,” that the attribution is meant to account
for. In a way, what this essay offers you is a problem: Why build into your the-
oretical account of a passage a distinct character that is different from that
of the experience you want to capture? Why tolerate such a difference, or
why bother? How should we expect a theoretical model to resemble the
experience it is set up to account for?
I am not going to try to answer those questions, especially not in any prin-
cipled or general way. I state them here in an effort to define the contexts in
which my examples might matter. Probably the most I can offer in the way
of generality will not be any general proposition at all, but a demonstration
of the workability of a few attitudes. One is an attitude of unprincipled prag-
matism about the relationship between analytical constructions and the
experiences to which they respond: unprincipled in that I am willing to
accept almost any kind of incongruity between the terms of an analysis and
the experiences that go with it; pragmatic in the sense that I am tolerant of
almost any kind of suggestiveness or resonance, but completely inflexible in
the expectation that there be some articulable relationship between analy-
sis and hearing. Even though my overt point is going to be that we cannot
insist on any particular parallelism between a theoretical formulation and its
experiential correlate, the last thing I want to do is offer comfort to the kind
of analysis that just identifies a pattern (any pattern) and then helps itself to
the assurance that this pattern (because it is such a lovely pattern) must be
working on us somehow—“unconsciously,” as people often say. If the pattern
matters to the music, then there must be some way we hear the mattering, and
what we hear, we’re conscious of! (We might at the same time not be con-
scious of how the configuration of sounds is provoking this experience; we
may well not be conscious of some concepts that would help us to report and
explain this. But those are different issues.)1
This is why I am not completely at ease with the (in many ways useful)
image of unperceived “structure” being responsible for perceived “effect.” I
would rather think of music being perceptible in a variety of different ways,
and of the coordination of different kinds of observation as being a useful
topic of inquiry—and of the effort to coordinate different kinds of observa-
tion as itself a useful mode of inquiry. My procedure, in most of the musical
analyses that follow, will be to begin with some “structural” fact that I know
by some means other than hearing, which I am for some reason unsure how
to hear (to put it less crudely, whose relation to experience, actual or pos-
176 joseph dubiel

sible, I do not yet know), and to try to find out what it might mean to hear it.
In all of these cases, I find myself developing an account that does not much
resemble my initial account of the fact; part of what I would claim to have
learned in each case is what might count as hearing this fact, that I would not
have expected.
With not very many presuppositions about what kinds of musical experi-
ences to discuss, and especially not the presupposition that these experi-
ences are going to resemble theoretical discourses, the main thing that I am
ever going to be able to say in favor of an analysis is that it can stimulate a
great deal of specific observation—or, to put it another way, it allows a lot of
the particulars of a musical passage to matter, and even creates kinds of par-
ticulars and kinds of relevance for them. It follows that I’m going to be pre-
senting a lot of analytical detail. What I hope to demonstrate is not an all-on-
top-of-it mastery, so much as the potential for responsiveness along
unforeseen lines.

It was a quite unforeseen lapse in mastery that got me thinking along the
lines of this essay. In a work that I thought I knew well—the Tristan prelude—
I one day came across a structural fact that I didn’t think I’d ever been hear-
ing and that, at the same time, I couldn’t imagine not hearing, so that I had
to do some work to figure out what would count as hearing it.
What I realized is that the big tune that enters at the deceptive cadence,
after the introductory fragments, doesn’t maintain a consistent relationship
to its bass line when it recurs. (See ex. 6.1.) The first time (m. 17), the tune’s
upbeat comes in over F in the bass, and on the downbeat the bass starts an
ascent, Fs–G–A. The next time (m. 32), the bass gets underway first, with F
already rising to Fs at the first upbeat. The tune even changes to adapt to this
difference: its big downward swoop, occurring over G in the bass instead of
Fs, is C–E instead of C–D. Eventually the difference between these two set-
tings fades: the bass of the second version includes a chromatic passing tone
that the first one doesn’t, Gs between G and A, and so the bass line’s high
point A coincides with the same point in the tune both times, and its subse-
quent descent to Cs fits the tune the same way. (The descending step from
A to G is also filled chromatically the second time, but in such a way that the
overall alignment of bass and tune is unchanged.)
The difference fades: but still—what a thing not to have noticed! I don’t
know many tonal melodies that can be displaced by half a measure against
their bass lines without at least some effect of powerful transformation being
wrought upon them. (Or maybe I do, and just don’t realize it.) And it isn’t
only that I hadn’t noticed; it is also that, once I was aware of this, I still had a
hard time noticing, even with the evidence right before my eyes, and under
my fingers. To this day, I have a hard time noticing, in a sense: the theme
uncertainty, disorientation, and loss 177

Example 6.1 Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Act I, Einleitung: two occurrences of the
theme, with the melody in different relations to the bass.

g g
! 68 S T g
C O C C C C C O C C C Y C C C O C C C O C Y C C OX C C W C 68

ff p C f dim. p
# 6 g g


32 g C YC C CO C C
! 68 S T C CO C C
C h
p cresc. f dim. p
# 6 g g g

doesn’t sound that different to me, one way and the other, certainly not as
different as I think I should expect. (Try it—even if you know the passages
well, and are in the habit of glossing over the examples when you read about
music. Play the melody with one bass line, then with the other.)
Or perhaps—the point I have been preparing—I am not listening for the
relevant sort of difference. Perhaps I do hear some difference, have been all
along, only it is not the kind of difference I have thought to listen for, or
thought to connect to the contrapuntal rearrangement of the theme. In any
event, here is something to investigate. I have a contrast that I can reason-
ably call structural, even in a very conventional sense: it’s a matter of how the
notes are arranged. In this instance, I recognize its structural status in the
very uneasiness I feel about not clearly noticing it. A lot of facts that might
be veraciously pointed out in a score, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find
inaudible; and in the right context I would be prepared to question whether
such facts should be considered music-structural at all. But this one can’t not
be significant, somehow. So there it is, and I need to do some work to say
what it means for my hearing. Even for something as macroscopic—as bla-
tant—as a melody and its bass going out of phase for a while, it is not obvi-
ous what sort of experience ought to count as “hearing it.”
Now I can be more specific about what I am not hearing that I might have
expected to: in the second (and later) occurrences of the theme, I am not
getting any very strong sense of departure from a norm or prototype pre-
sented by the first occurrence. I suppose that the first version must be, in
178 joseph dubiel

some sense, the normal one, if any one is. It is the version that recurs later
in the opera—for instance, when Isolde narrates her first meeting with Tris-
tan, and when the two of them have their drink together later in the first
act—and it and Tristan eventually expire simultaneously in the third act. It
probably is the way I vaguely and inaccurately thought all the thematic state-
ments went, when I thought they all went the same way.
Statistics aren’t exactly to the point, but as a matter of fact this first con-
trapuntal arrangement is the exception in the prelude. The second arrange-
ment is the one reproduced at the next occurrence of the theme (m. 55),
and at another occurrence shortly after that (m. 58). (The first recurrence
is transposed up a major third and moved to the opposite metrical position,
but the relation between melody and bass is the same.) That these statements
match the second one may not be so remarkable, since their textural sur-
roundings are essentially the same as those of the second statement. More
interesting is what happens at the next occurrence of the theme, when a
return to the first version seems explicitly called for by another approach to
the deceptive cadence (m. 74), proceeding from a reconstitution of the pre-
lude’s opening. (See ex. 6.2.) Here the original counterpoint does recur, but
also does not. It does, in that the melody does begin over Fn in the bass, and
the bass has (and needs) no passing Gs between G and A. It does not, in that
the melody is out of its normal metrical position, and the interval of its first
big descent is again altered (this time to C–Ds)—this even though the leap
still occurs over Fs. The metric repositioning is easy to notice, because the
melodic entrance overlaps, instead of waits for, the resolution of the appog-
giatura in the deceptive cadence. Because the entrance is thus vividly “too
early,” the restoration of the original contrapuntal alignment sounds not
quite like a restoration—sounds more like a new realignment on top of the
old realignment. And these accumulated changes make this fifth statement
seem, of all the statements, the most obvious departure from some inferred
norm, despite the return of the original counterpoint.
Without overestimating the relevance of such a survey to the hearing of
events locally, I can acknowledge the difficulty of identifying any “normal”
version of the theme. Accordingly, it might be best to characterize the “orig-
inal” version of the theme as (simply) the particular version that follows the
deceptive cadence (not only in the prelude, but in its later occurrences as
well).2 It might be thought of as the version adjusted to the deceptive cadence,
and the second version, similarly, as the one adjusted to the contrasting cir-
cumstances of its entry, and the idea of norm and departure might be dis-
pensed with. Taking this point completely to heart, the way to respond to the
difference between the versions might after all be not to hear the theme as
different on these various occasions, but to hear (as if) the same theme,
embedded in various contexts, and to assimilate the differences, insofar as
they are noticeable, to this embedding. It may even be a good interpretive
uncertainty, disorientation, and loss 179

Example 6.2 Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Act I, Einleitung: another occurrence of
the theme, with another relation between melody and bass.


! 68 C CO C C g C CO C C C C CO C
WC g g

strategy actively to minimize the difference between one occurrence and

another—to assume that some aspects of their surrounding contexts have
dictated the differences, and that the remarkable compositional feat is pre-
cisely to have concealed these differences as much as Wagner has. On
account of some other considerations, things are “already” going to be differ-
ent in the vicinity of these two entrances, and now compositional finesse con-
sists precisely in directing a listener’s attention away from the difference.
What would we expect of delirious phantasmagoric music, if not something
like this?
The obvious candidate for a contextual feature that can be the matrix of
this embedding is the degree of continuity: sheer continuity of sound, and,
beyond this, continuity of motion. The opening of the prelude is conspicu-
ously (and famously) a concatenation of fragments, everything about
which—their restricted but colorful orchestration, their abstruse and incom-
plete harmonic progression, their sequential succession—points to the pos-
sibility of a sound that is bigger, more complete, better able to sustain itself.
The deceptive cadence is the moment when these conditions are alleviated,
or at least most of them are: the sound is from this moment full and unbro-
ken. A moment later this sound is shaped and directed into continuous
motion by the theme. The sequence of events is nicely worked out: first, a
moment to bask in the chord that the deceptive cadence has produced; then,
the upbeat of the new melody—with the forthcoming pace of the bass line
just insinuated by the rescoring of the chord; and then, coming along with
the melody, the steady movement of the bass.
When the theme occurs the second time, the establishment of continuity,
of sound or of motion, is no longer an issue (at most the maintenance of it
may be, insofar as a return to fragments is soon to follow); therefore the
theme will not be able to contribute, let alone lead, but will instead fit in. At
most there is a change in the kind of motion, a change that is best understood
by reference to the bass. While the bass moves steadily by step, by passing
motion, during the theme, its motion lapses during contrasting passages (in
the first instance, between the two statements, mm. 25 ff.) into something
180 joseph dubiel

less “linear,” more “harmonic” (as well as generally descending, and some-
what slower). Accordingly the bass of the second thematic statement, though
no longer the first stirring of bass motion, still does represent revival after a
kind of lull. Compared to this, the entrance of the melody is a less decisive
event, for which the bass does not wait: the bass moves from F to Fs at once
in the first measure, and the melody comes along after. Soon enough, the
extra chromatic passing tone will allow the original alignment to be restored,
and the theme will run its course.
Actually the story is subtler than this. The theme’s bass does not simply ini-
tiate rising motion; rather it makes more vivid, by accelerating it, a rising
motion that, at least in retrospect, takes in the preceding E (m. 31)—the E–F
succession even vaguely recalling the environment in which the theme first
arose, after the E–F of the deceptive cadence. For that matter, this ascent
reaches back still further, to Ds (m. 29). (See ex. 6.3.) While the ascent from
Ds to E does not seem to be driving the music in which it occurs (for a vari-
ety of reasons, notably a certain obscurity in the harmonic rhythm and pro-
gression), this ascending step is nonetheless available for eventual assimila-
tion into an ascent gradually accumulating toward the rising bass of the
theme. There are two measures from Ds to E, one from E to F; and one-half
measure per step thereafter. Unless the bass moved from F to Fs within the
measure, no acceleration would occur; and so it moves.
The interpretive strategy that has now emerged is to portray the bass, in
each of the theme’s occurrences, as moving when and how it does for reasons
of its own—essentially reasons of textural pacing, independent of the
theme—and then to hear the melody fitted in to each of these contexts as
smoothly and neatly as it can be. This might be how it makes sense for me
not to be struck by the change of contrapuntal alignment as a phenomenon
in itself.
From one point of view, there is nothing especially original in this. I’ve
worked myself around to a conclusion that I might have started with, that
smoothly worked transitions—concealment of the seams—might be an
important aspect of Wagner’s technique. Why have I had to work myself
around to it? It is not normal for an analysis to take the elusiveness of a per-
ception as a topic, and to try to order some observations around, and in sup-
port of, the difficulty of making a particular expected observation. The
admission of difficulty—in both senses of admission: owning up to it, and let-
ting it into the discussion—is an unusual analytical maneuver, if not indeed
the opposite of the work analysis tries to do. I end up having elaborated a
sense in which not hearing the difference between the two contrapuntal
arrangements might be counted as gaining access to the prelude’s struc-
ture—as much as anything might.
That said, I think it is possible to give a more characterful account of how
the difference between versions can be noticed (while not being noticed).
uncertainty, disorientation, and loss 181

Example 6.3 Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Act I, Einleitung: the slow bass ascent
preceding the second occurrence of the theme.

28 g g
g g g
! 68 W C C C C C C OO C C W C W C W C C C C C W C OO C C W C X C W C C C C O C
p cresc. f p cresc. f p etc.
p sf p sf p

It manifests itself as a difference in the theme’s power to dominate the

scene—a difference whose magic is greatest if we do not notice any feature
of the theme itself as causing the change in its power.
The first time, the tune steps into a scene that has been abundantly pre-
pared for it—that we come to recognize as having been prepared for it—as
it initiates a new line of action. The deceptive cadence is the time for a good
heroic entrance, after all that longing, and here comes a big memorable
tune streaming forth in an impressive section of the orchestra, an active indi-
viduated agent.
The second time, the tune emerges from within something else ongoing.
It becomes noticeable as having been active already, though not in the fore-
ground (this despite the not inconsiderable number of wind instruments
that enter to play it). In a fairly literal sense, the tune has to emerge, from a
context that includes not only its bass line, with all its backward connections
to the immediately preceding context, but from a welter of other counter-
point. This counterpoint is hard to characterize: its lines rise and fall, mostly
by small intervals, in a very flexible relation to the meter, tending not to be
“motivic,” the way the melody is, or even the way the steady stepping of the
bass manages to be. (Their figures may have just enough identity, in the
smallness of their intervals, to allow the theme’s upbeat to be inconspicuous
among them.) The counterpoint also clouds the harmony to a considerable
degree, and continues to do so after the theme begins; which is to say that it
takes away the theme’s original characteristic of being in a clearer harmonic
idiom than what surrounds it—one more of the traits by which the theme
originally made everything before it sound like an introduction to it.
In the linear and harmonic murk, one moment that stands out is the clear-
ing to a six-four chord on G, on the tune’s first downbeat (m. 33; see ex. 6.4).
This chord stands out, first of all, simply by being an intelligible chord, sud-
denly lighting up the obscure pitches of the inner voices with a harmonic
interpretation. In particular the E of the inner voice Cs–D–Ds–E (which must
182 joseph dubiel

Example 6.4 Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Act I, Einleitung: the counterpoint from
which a six-four chord emerges over G.

32 S T
! 68 W C C CC
h C C OC Y C C C
g h etc.
g g

be regarded as at least a little motivic), hard to grasp when it arrives over Fs

(a passing tone? to what?), is clarified as an anticipation, along with the
rhythmically more conventional anticipation of C in the melody. More than
this, a six-four chord, in this piece, is about as strong a tonality marker as
we’re ever allowed to hear: no less clear in its key implications than a domi-
nant, and a representation of its tonic triad, which we otherwise probably
won’t hear at all. The key marked by this particular six-four is (locally) a new
one: C major, standing out against the A major of the preceding theme (all
the more as the pitch class Cs has just survived a serious brush with Cn in the
harmonies of measures 28–32). C major thus emerges, suddenly and unex-
pectedly, after the tune does—and apparently through the tune’s agency.
This harmonic and tonal turn is what the theme brings (while the resump-
tion of bass motion is agentless, part of the general fluctuation of intensity).3
This is another point of significant contrast with the first version of the
theme. Like the second version, the first is in C, and its bass G likewise car-
ries a six-four. But in the first version the six-four occurs on an upbeat (that
feels like one), and does not seem to be a point of arrival in relation to the
preceding chord over Fs. Although not inconceivable as the next harmony
in the theme’s progression IV, V/V, the six-four is reabsorbed, as a passing
chord, into the continuing elaboration of V/V, with a more effective resolu-
tion to follow (ex. 6.5):

Example 6.5 Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Act I, Einleitung: voice-leading interpre-
tations of the first occurrence’s bass, on different temporal scales.


uncertainty, disorientation, and loss 183

but then also

and even

5 4 6
3 2 3

So the six-four here lacks the news value of the one in the second ver-
sion—a difference completely compatible with what I have already proposed
about the character of the theme’s first entrance. The news value of the first
entrance is concentrated right at the beginning.
The first time, the theme is presented to us on a silver platter; the second
time it sneaks up on us, but is then no less decisive in its effect (in fact, it is
perhaps even more so, at least tonally). Put another way: the first time seems
like the well-prepared entry of an agent, the second more a glimpse or rec-
ollection of it, now in the coils of something powerful but impersonal. And
I don’t see anything “unstructural” about these attributions: I can’t imagine
what the Tristan prelude is built to do, if not something like this. So I have
come around to a sense of “the same thing, somehow striking me differently”
that I can believe is (in part) the perceptible effect of the contrapuntal
realignment and that is compatible with, and even to some degree may
depend on, my not noticing the realignment as a feat of “convertible coun-
And that is how I wasn’t being just dumb, or inattentive, all those years
when I didn’t catch on to this. Perhaps I was responding wonderfully to it all
along. Truth be told, I can’t say: I never really tried to articulate this until I
was provoked by my confusion over the counterpoint. I am convinced that
the beginning of wisdom here, in this case, was my learning to live with, and
then learning to celebrate, a state of affairs that might seem to epitomize the-
oretical failure. I refer not only to my initial sense that a difference clear in
the score was difficult to recover, but also to a residual sense that the con-
trast of character I have ended up with still may not as definite as the place-
ment of F or Fs in the bass under the theme’s upbeat. This doesn’t bother me
any more.
One reason is that the definiteness of any report of hearing such as I have
just given is bound to be spurious, beyond a certain point. Obviously I can-
not just now have been reporting any single real occasion of my hearing.
184 joseph dubiel

What I am doing is using the narration of a possible hearing—a staged hear-

ing, perhaps—as a device to communicate a possibility of experience that
has caught my imagination. At least I am trying to tell you something you can
do with the easily identified facts, that might not have been easy to infer from
the theory that produced those facts. The theory in which there are such
things as six-four chords might not, in itself, suggest to you what I’ve lately
asked you to do with the different placement of the six-four chord in the
theme, the one time and the other. In any event, the guidance I am offering
for what to do with such facts is meant not only, perhaps not even primarily,
to direct your hearing; in this context, it is also meant to show how far the
terms of experience might sometimes be from the terms of report, and so to
illustrate how big and difficult a problem it can be to determine what it
means to hear a certain fact.

My next example takes a further step along this line. If, in the Tristan pre-
lude, it ends up being debatable whether noticing various differences in
character between instances of the theme should count as hearing changes
in the counterpoint or not, Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories presents a
case where I’m happy to concede that I don’t hear the thing that Feldman
has notated, at least in the terms in which he (appears to have) notated it.
At the beginning of the piece, the rhythmic notation is quite remarkable:
a division of each 3/8 measure into four parts, against which are set synco-
pated figures that entail further subdivision of those four parts. (See ex. 6.6.)
What is not notated, that is, is the simple 8/16 measure that would suffice to
specify the durations, or even, assuming that an underlying triple meter mat-
ters somehow, the subdivision of the 3/8 measure into, in effect, a 24/64
measure, that would allow those rhythms to be written directly in relation to
the beat. In fact, the ostensible triple meter is not expressed in any way for
more than twenty pages of score, lasting many minutes.
Is triple meter a “structural” feature of the passage, then? Is four against
three? Syncopation against four against three? Should we admit as “struc-
tural” a feature that we do not hear and do not know how to hear, just
because it is notated? Do we have any use for a concept of structure like that?
(There is, I suppose, a tradition of retreating from perceptual questions in
situations like this and aligning “analysis” with some kind of reconstruction
of the composer’s decisions; but, aside from the general evasiveness of this
strategy, it is specifically useless in this case: precisely the perceptual obscu-
rity of the notation makes it hard to understand as a compositional choice.)
On the other hand: is there no way to hear the notated rhythm? That is, is
there nothing to hear that is plausibly a consequence of the peculiar nota-
tion? Suppose that the result of the passage being written the way it is, is—
though not any sense of these rhythms laid against a triple pulse—a sense of
uncertainty, disorientation, and loss 185

Example 6.6 Feldman, Triadic Memories, Opening.


3 ppp H H H H H H
d Ì



the rhythms wobbling. They are likely to be pretty wobbly as a matter of

chronometric fact, if we play by Feldman’s rules and seriously try to produce
them by setting quadruplets against a triple beat. The effort to do this will
keep us (performers and listeners) intensely involved in shaping events
within the measure; will inhibit us from taking the measures as the units of a
larger “flow,” as we might if they were internally simple. Add that these rhyth-
mic patterns, played as accurately as we like, include several that hardly dif-
fer from “one, two, three” anyway: the rhythm of the first measure, for
instance, if counted out in the meter, places its first attack one sixty-fourth
note after the second beat and its second attack one thirty-second note after
the third beat.4 What we’re likely to hear, then, are a lot of measures that are
sort of, but not quite, one-two-three, and that almost match one another, but
not well enough for us to gain any clarity—and, now and then among them,
one measure, like the fourth one, that is obviously enough different to leave
the other ones sounding even more strongly but indistinctly alike. And this
means that the question of whether the measures all are alike as instances of
some rhythm will remain fresh for us, will keep being renewed.
The effect is a little like hearing something just once and then turning it
over in memory: replaying it with slightly different attention each time, the
way one does, and noticing its changing aspects; and eventually no longer
retaining an exact sense of how it originally was, except insofar as this sense
186 joseph dubiel

survives in the aggregate of its slightly differing remembered versions. Only

this doesn’t happen really in memory: it is “composed out” in the sounds, the
progress of the music being like such a succession of versions. (Well, more
dogged and exact; but what do we expect of a composing-out?) The thing
being turned over in memory is not exactly the single measure, of course: the
pitch pattern extends the figures into pairs of measures, and, even more sig-
nificantly, complicates them, by making them composites. (Eventually, further
articulations are created by the changes of register, but I won’t pursue
So: whether we think of this experience as hearing the rhythmic notation
or not (a question driven away by more interesting ones), it is part of the
sense of this music that something extremely delicate and fussy is going on,
giving each event a kind of “hand-made” individuality that we’re to notice
but not to go too far in construing. This isn’t the kind of experience that first
comes to mind in the name of hearing “structure.” But what’s missing (that
matters)? It is a determinate, vivid characteristic that I can hear in the
music—that, as a bonus, I enjoy hearing and find distinctive. It is in signifi-
cant part a consequence of the way the rhythms are written, even to some
extent a plausible motivation for them to have been written that way. I can’t
argue that the notation is a uniquely determinate way to have produced this
effect (though in fact I don’t have a counterproposal)—but it is not a proj-
ect of mine to make the composer look efficient. At most, I suppose I could
be said to be assuming, for the sake of argument, that the notation is efficient
for doing something, and then trying to work out what it could be. Part of what
I find interesting in this account of this music, actually, is the degree of
overkill in the notation relative to what I say I’m getting out of it; or, to put
this in a more encouraging way, the degree to which what I’m proposing as
a hearing does not involve recovering every bit of detail that I can see (or
think I see) in the notation. The perceived outcome of this oddly specific
notation, I’m claiming, is a particular kind of vagueness about a particular
kind of thing. And in all my examples I have to admit a similar underdeter-
mination of experience by “structure.” The disparity may be more disturb-
ing, in the other cases, because it will be more familiarly “analytical”-looking
information that will be left underutilized.
This example from Feldman is in a sense peripheral, because it is about a
notational feature, difficult to realize in performance, not about the kind of
referential or developmental relationships between things that analysis usu-
ally treats; and much of the question about it is whether any sonic conse-
quences of the notation reach our ears at all —never mind what the charac-
ter of the experience is like. The justification is that, as I have suggested,
“what the composer did” is at least an ingredient of the notion of structure:
the notion of something done, apart from us (listeners) that will (or will not)
have consequences for us (listeners). Even if we don’t identify what’s “struc-
uncertainty, disorientation, and loss 187

tural” with what was done by the composer (perhaps even done “intention-
ally,” if we have an idea of what that means), we may think of it as something
that we can intelligibly imagine someone doing for the sake of the effect it
(perhaps) produces. Our analysis may say, in effect: it is as though the piece
were contrived to do such-and-such; we may conceive of it as so contrived,
whether this is a biographical fact about the composer or not.
And—more important—what the “such-and-such” is may take some imag-
ination to figure out. As a corollary, “do you hear that?”, asked with reference
to a structural feature, may be a bad question, at least without sufficient
attention given to the necessarily prior question “what would it be to hear
that?” And the answer to this question cannot be counted on to sound like a
report of the seizing of some information. Who knows what kind of sensation
it might be? Actually, a good reason to carry on music-analytic investigations
is that they may help us to recognize sensations that we didn’t realize we were
having. The effort to figure out what the effect could possibly be of some fea-
ture of the sonic configuration may lead to a raising of consciousness.
Think of this untypical example as chosen to illustrate these two points in
a relatively uncomplicated context. What it is to hear something may take
some imagination to figure out (enough to disconcert a yes-or-no approach
to the question of whether you hear something). Hearing something—
responding to it intensely and relevantly—may not involve mastering it,
being (or becoming) able to give it back in the terms in which it was set up;
may involve specific sorts of confusion or loss of information.
From the first of these points it may follow that a music-structural propo-
sition may not have (have to have) a one-to-one audible correlate to be audi-
bly relevant. (This is a lax position; behind it is a strict interest in holding the-
oretical propositions to a standard of audible relevance, but the ways of
meeting this standard are meant to be multiple, even beyond anticipation.)
From the second it follows that some of the connotations of “structure”—
those of logic, pertinence, comprehensiveness—may limit our imaginations
for the first point; may even actively lead us away from good possibilities. Let
us say at least that the thing we hear, the thing we put together in experience,
in reaction to, in consequence of, our encounter with a musical “structure”
need not be expected to have those connoted characteristics. And in that
case, why should we even take the trouble to expect the thing encountered
to have those characteristics?

My next example takes its departure from a piece of theoretical writing, by

David Lewin (1982–83), about the sixth of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces
op. 19. In this case, the sonic facts are more or less incontrovertible, but their
construal is intensely under construction. Lewin notes that the two chords
chiming through most of the piece resemble one another intervallically in a
188 joseph dubiel

number of ways, none of them comprehensive. The two perfect fourths of

the lower chord, G3–C4 and C4–F4, resonate with the perfect fourth on top
of the upper chord, Fs5–B5; and, more abstractly, the minor seventh G3–F4
resonates, as an instance of pitch-class interval 2, with the major ninth
A4–B5. Thus every interval of the lower, later chord reflects an interval of
the upper, earlier one, although the chords are not equivalent in any famil-
iar sense.
Rather than label the chords as instances of set-type X and set-type Y and
attribute to them a high degree of similarity in interval-class content, Lewin
interprets the intervallic resemblances specifically as so many incomplete rela-
tionships of transposition or inversion “in the air” between the chords,
describing the sound of their juxtaposition as “fairly T6-ish” and at the same
time “fairly T1-ish” and “fairly inversion-about-A-ish,” and so on (338). And
each of these incomplete transformations has dynamic potential: the poten-
tial to be completed by the emergence of the note that transforms the last
note of one chord the way its other two notes have notionally been trans-
formed. There are six of these incomplete transformations (because each of
the three intervallic matches can be construed as transposition or as inver-
sion), and there are twelve notes that would complete them (because each
transpositional or inversional match could be made exact by an alteration to
either one of the two chords), though not twelve different ones. A little fan-
cifully, Lewin speaks of “generative lusts” for these notes—of “musical ten-
sions and/or potentialities which later events of the piece will resolve and/or
realize to greater or lesser extents” (341).
The appealing thing about this account of the piece is the dynamic aspect
that Lewin conjures up for what enter the discussion as static resemblances
between the chords, with the possibility for the interaction of these dynam-
ics to motivate the events of the piece. How these various potentials might be
addressed is a complex matter, since the note that fulfills one transformation
may be irrelevant for another (and not all the notes come in at once!). Lewin
presents a chart of the various notes’ appearances, but does not narrate the
piece in these terms, beyond the general gloss that the transformational
potentials “jockey one with another for priority” (341).5
It is hard to see how the sequence of events in the piece relates to one of
the most interesting facts that the theoretical apparatus extrudes, namely
that some notes are more lusted for than others—at least more multifari-
ously, whether or not this means more intensely. Four transformations lust
for E, two each for Bf, Cs, and D, one for Ds; and even one for A, which is
already present. (Poor Gs isn’t lusted for at all.) This differentiation cannot
readily be seen to motivate the order of events in the piece; and indeed
Lewin’s “jockey one with another” implies that the order of events does not
result from a single cumulation of all these forces. For example, consider the
first figure added to the chords: Ds, as little lusted for as any note, orna-
uncertainty, disorientation, and loss 189

mented by E, the most lusted for: how do the relative strengths of the lusts
account for that? So perhaps the transformational reading of the piece
should not be called on to predict or explain what happens in the piece. Per-
haps its role is to elaborate the meaning of things that do happen, along the
lines of “should Cs come along, it may do so with an air of filling out Fs–B into
a complete transposition or inversion of G–C–F.”
Which probably is as it should be. After all (as Martin Scherzinger once
pointed out in a discussion of Lewin’s article), this is about the least lustful-
sounding piece anyone has ever heard. The sense of earlier events driving
later ones to happen, which Lewin has so productively synthesized in this
atonal context, may not carry over directly from the realm of abstract trans-
position and inversion to the temporal flow of this composition.
Here is another way to read the technical information. The fact that Ds is
compatible with only one of the many possible transformational relations
between the two chords, means that Ds does as much as any note could to
differentiate one relationship from the others, thus at least momentarily to dis-
ambiguate the cloud produced by the chords’ combination. In this sense, Ds
is the most eloquent note that could have been chosen to come first—as it
does, alone, and scored to pierce the haze—the single note that can do most
to define the relationship between the chords. And then E, the note that
ornaments Ds (in one of the two registers in which Ds occurs), is the most
neutral note that could be chosen for this role—the one that, in itself, does
least to diminish the ambiguity of the original combination, and therefore
does least to counter the clarifying effect of Ds.6
To appreciate this alteration of imagery, it helps to direct your auditory
attention away from the two chords as they are attacked, toward the sound of
all six notes (and fifteen intervals) ringing together, a state that persists for
quite a long time. Elaine Barkin encourages this move in her writing about
this piece: most concisely in Barkin 1979b, with the word “INTER ACT” writ-
ten out vertically, interlaced with the ties that sustain the two chords, and
later (even after Ds) with the ties (rearranged as they are in the score) fol-
lowed by a vertical “intermit”, but also throughout Barkin 1979a, which
makes a theme of “not . . . ‘letting go’ ” (21) when it would be tempting to
say that nothing is happening. What happens, while the chords fade away
together, is that an initial unclear configuration—unclear in that it is full of
suggestions—remains unclarified, and even blurs further; and then is recre-
ated, before anything else is added. This is not the dynamic that Lewin’s
unfulfilled transpositions and inversions might immediately suggest; but it
is one to which his technical information can productively be harnessed. We
simply have to notice that attacks of notes are not the only kind of event in
the piece.
Theorists may be interested to note that this interpretation of Lewin’s
material, though on the face of it less “deterministic”—that is, less concerned
190 joseph dubiel

with describing the course of events as a process of the realization of impli-

cations—paradoxically succeeds in recuperating the way in which theorists
often claim to be explaining the events of a piece: it defines a field of alter-
natives from which the actual events can be considered to have been chosen,
and it defines some respect in which the actual events offer the most of some-
thing, or do the best job of something, that would be possible in that field.
Theorists concerned with hearing will of course agree that there is rarely any
such thing as hearing that some event is the possible choice that would max-
imize some quality; what we can hear is that the event does have this quality,
strongly, perhaps, and we can somehow believe that this is a quality worth
having. But it is routine that an analytical explanation framed along these
lines will include this sort of “excess” information.
I say this partly by way of admitting that I have no story to tell about how
to hear that Ds is the most eloquent note (in the sense I have defined) that
could have occurred; I wouldn’t know how to begin listening for mostness.
The analytical construction helps me by sensitizing me to the possibility of
this sort of eloquence—by enabling me to conceive of this sort of eloquence
in the first place. Until I can conceive of it, I have no way to inquire whether
any auditory experience (actual or possible) exhibits that quality to any
Like any analytical predicate, this word “eloquence” that I am beating to
death should not be expected to hold up very well under the treatment. No
matter how well I have defined it (and I can imagine doing better), I don’t
ever expect it to do very much for me, in its capacity as a theoretical term.
What I expect it to do (as I have said elsewhere) is “be rendered generic by
comparison with the specific experience it engenders” (Dubiel 1999, 273,
emphasis removed): that is, to open up to further description. And so it
does—even in the rather limited intervallic terms that I have been using for
most of my description so far.
Going back to Lewin’s construction, we note that the relationship articu-
lated by Ds would be that of tritone transposition between the two chords.
To state it a bit mechanically, if the lower register’s C and F had come with a
Ds (rather than with a G), then this chord would have been a complete tri-
tone transposition of the upper register’s B, Fs, and A. (See ex. 6.7.) Given
this account, we might wonder what Ds is doing in the upper register; or, con-
versely, given the register, we might wonder what to make of a theoretical
description of an upper-register Ds as supplying something that would help
the low register match the high one. In any event, a question about register
would make us especially interested in the fact that this high Ds occurs in two
registers: Ds5 and Ds6. Those of us in a more intimate relation with the piece
than just listening to it cannot fail to notice how peculiarly Schoenberg asks
us to use our hands to produce this doubling, or how specific he has suddenly
become about dynamics and articulation (especially after his blank pp for the
uncertainty, disorientation, and loss 191

Example 6.7 Schoenberg, Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, op. 19 no. 6: Ds added to the
second chord completing T6 of the first; then an extension of T6 between two
sonorities, both including Ds.

? WA W AA ? WA
T6 of
W AA =
and/or T6 of

opening chords). At a minimum, we must feel encouraged to do something

much more complicated in our listening than either simply assimilate Ds to
the lower chord, in completion of the T6 relationship, or simply assimilate it
to the upper register, where it is presented. And if we hear Ds as belonging
in some sense to both registers, then the transpositional relationship becomes
more inclusive: that is, the B, Fs, A, and Ds of the upper register are all tri-
tone-transposed by the F, C, and Ds—and A—of the lower. The spacing of the
two-chord sonority makes it easy for A’s position to become equivocal: the
largest gap anywhere is between A and the rest of the upper chord, the small-
est between A and the top of the lower chord (smaller than any interval
within a chord).
I can think of a few things to say in favor of this interpretation, all of which
I hope will make it easier to understand what this interpretation might sound
like. First, with the registral distinctions blurred, the atmosphere of T6ish-
ness is thickened by Ds to an even greater degree than our initial construc-
tion suggested; in this sense, Ds even more does what we said it did. One way
to listen to this point is to try and hear what intervals Ds seems to be involved
in when it enters. I am suggesting this as a sort of ear-training exercise—and
I don’t promise that your perceptions will be the same as mine, but no one
I have ever tried this with has said that Ds sounds decisively like a major sixth
above Fs. To me, the sense of Ds’s participation in a tritone is particularly
strong, as is the sense of its participation in a “minor seventh” above F—sug-
gesting to me that both the clarification of T6 in the sonority and the sub-
liminal realignment of A and Ds with both of the chords are indeed factors
in what I hear.7
Second, the continuation of the piece after these first chords includes a
process of qualifying—and, eventually, surprisingly undermining—the
simple high–low distinction that the chords establish. Moving on after Ds
and the ensuing interruption in the sound of the chords: the chords sound
again, and then the upper chord is slurred to a much lower chord that is an
exact transposition of the original lower chord, by the interval that domi-
nates the original lower chord, and that shares two pitches with the original
lower chord—so what has become of “upper” and “lower”? And then what
becomes of the pair of chords when something new comes in below all of
192 joseph dubiel

this? At the very end, the same registral configuration—the original high and
low chords, and then something below them—occurs in a more extreme
form, with the new low thing lower, and therefore with both of the original
chords recharacterized as high, the distinction between them not sounding
as it once did. My suggestion is that the ambiguous registral situation of Ds
is the first step in this process.
I find it encouraging that a percept as macroscopic and (relatively) unthe-
oretical as a gradual reconfiguration of our sense of registral location should
turn out to be so thoroughly intertwined with a sense of intervallic differen-
tiation and character developed in (and from) a context where none seems
to be given a priori—a story of the tritones, to put it simply. I feel that, after
some effort, I have really found something in the sound that I can believe is
significantly a consequence of the transformational configuration con-
structed by Lewin.
It is interesting that I had to work away from an “implicative” account of
the music (at least a little) to find this. It is as though a certain, not-alto-
gether-thought-through image of what analytical-perceptual success would
look like had to be to some degree overcome to reach this conception of the
sound. The ambition to say why things happen—to represent events as caused
within the piece—is in this case worth setting aside, in favor of the ambition
only (only!) to say what things are when they do happen. And the analysis
includes, as a central feature, a long passage of music that is hard to char-
acterize in the terms of the analysis. For me, the key thing to find here (or to
let myself accept) was the unclarity of the coexisting chords—the constructed
unclarity. Here, I gained by allowing myself not to be on top of events.

All of my examples so far have involved pieces of “structural” information

that I did not know how to hear, and therefore did not even know whether I
was hearing, when I first confronted them; I have told stories of working out
what it might mean to hear them, and made a point of the hearings that I
eventually found being neither conventionally “structural” in character nor
necessarily similar in character or in density of information to the structural
descriptions with which they are associated. In my last example I proceed in
the other direction, from a vivid perception that does not have the conven-
tionally “structural” character to detailed further examination of the score
to support and elaborate that perception. In this process I encounter a
degree of tension with my developed skill as an analyst, which would direct
me to a different kind of observation, and indeed almost direct me to make
the perception go away.
The piece is the C-sharp minor Prelude in Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered
Clavier; the perception is of an unrealized modulation to E major suggested
uncertainty, disorientation, and loss 193

by the beginning of a thematic statement in that key early in the piece (m.
8). This E major does not even last the full length of the figure, from one
downbeat to the next: the Bn that would complete the figure is supplanted by
Bs, and C-sharp minor easily reabsorbs the whole thing. A hopeful event is
swallowed up, and the music goes on remarkably as though it never hap-
pened. It’s a sad moment.
It’s the vanishing to which I want to do justice, analytically—including the
sadness. I’d like to find something to say about how a composition isn’t just
going astray if it puts something behind it, but that does let a loss sound like
a loss. In a way, this shouldn’t be hard. Why can’t a composition do that, if it
wants to? But even if am I hyperconscientious on this point, still the weight
of analytical tradition is against portraying the progress of a piece in this way.
The most traditional thing to do about a passage like this is precisely to deny
that a modulation takes place, to deny it precisely for the reason that it is not
sustained. The view is obvious almost beyond discussion in our Schenker-
influenced analytical world, but we hardly need Schenker to appreciate it;
in fact, the most conventional and limited harmony book is likely to make
precisely this sort of distinction, between “real” and merely “apparent” mod-
ulations, its topic of greatest intellectual intensity.
More specifically and interestingly, analytical culture places a high value
on the identification of details that follow up, refer to, and in that sense sus-
tain the sound of, unusual events, with a certain extra cachet given to events
that do this unobviously. So the routinely “sophisticated” way to handle an
unrealized modulation would be to acknowledge that lesser minds might
ignore it and then counter that, if we do recognize it—recognize it as unre-
alized, that is—then we can find such-and-such interesting reflections of it
later in the piece; and in that sense, the modulation turns out not to be lost
at all, as nothing in a great piece is allowed to be lost. A prime candidate for
such an unobvious reflection ( just to show I know my business) would be the
(deservedly) celebrated dissonant clash, late in the piece, between Bs in a
chord and Bn in a descending scale—thus, between the diagnostic pitch
classes of C-sharp minor and E major (at the end of m. 29—a favorite
moment of Schoenberg’s). But I rather like a hearing of this piece in which
E major just goes lost after the early adumbration of it; in which the prelude’s
tone changes, as it proves to be in many ways a looser and more obscure com-
position than it initially seemed it was going to be. And no matter the mer-
its of this hearing, I ought to have the capacity to construct it; maybe some-
one else would prefer a different story, but it ought not to be the theory that
decides for us.
In retrospect, there will be plenty of reasons not to have trusted in E
major, even as the thematic statement begins. The preceding sequence does
not lead to a cadence in this key, only to the triad; the dominant preceding
194 joseph dubiel

this triad is not even in root position; and this dominant represents essen-
tially the first harmonic occurrence of Bn,8 and not, as a fully elaborated mod-
ulation would require, the resituation in E major of a Bn already introduced
within C-sharp minor. And although there is a familiar Baroque pattern com-
prising a few statements of the motive in the tonic key (mm. 1–4), a modu-
lating sequence (mm. 5–7), and an arrival at a new key, marked by the
motive again, all the features of the prelude just cited are departures from
the pattern’s ideal form—to which familiarity with the form paradoxically
sensitizes me.
In this sense, perceiving an E-major key, even at the prompting of a the-
matic entrance, is getting ahead of myself—allowing myself to get ahead of
myself (or is that the way it always happens?). It’s not making up a new key
out of whole cloth; it’s not even ignoring contradictory evidence, really (evi-
dence doesn’t seem like quite the right concept, although some music the-
ory might talk of it this way); it’s just going quite far on the strength of some
understated suggestions. Is it or isn’t it wishing a new key into existence?
The first thing I have to work with—even before the motive unfolds—is
the harmonic clarity of the E-major triad, in contrast to the airy dissonance
of the sequence. Over and above this clarity, the E-major measure is much
richer harmonically than any measure of the opening: besides the gentle
expression of the subdominant on the last quarter note (a precedented
detail),9 the transitory combination of Ds and Fs on the way to this quarter
note even suggests the dominant; and in the piece so far, any major-triad
sonority stands out, let alone a mutually reinforcing combination of them.10
The exposure of the neighboring subdominant, intensified further by the
ornament, prepares the particular cruelty of its capture by C-sharp minor in
the place of its resolution: warmth and fineness of detail turn out to be vul-
The music that comes with Bs does not even act to erase E major, really,
so much as carry on as though E major had never happened. Its most chill-
ing aspect may be its reimposition of a pattern of strong and weak measures
that seemed to have faded away. The metrical regularity of the opening mea-
sures (like their harmonic sobriety) is suspended during the sequence, or at
least not reinforced: a series of parallel measures, as clearly articulated as
these are by suspensions and resolutions, can easily be taken “one, one, one,”
with the strong–weak pattern promising to reemerge at the time of the new
motivic statement. And with respect to the reemergent pattern, the Bs chord
that cuts off the statement makes a surprising accent—in effect a syncopated
one; but it can also be heard as simply strong, as falling back into the origi-
nal two-measure rhythm, which had been displaced only so briefly and
inconclusively that its recovery is easy.
The psychology of the hypermeter is all of a piece with that of the tonal-
ity. Nothing in the sequence actively interferes with the original pairing of
uncertainty, disorientation, and loss 195

measures; and so the metric implications of the E-major measure, however

optimistically I accept them, remain devastatingly open to erasure. If, as they
recede, I want to reprimand myself for having accepted them, it is open to
me to notice how specifically the E-major measure resembles, not the initial
measure of the piece, but the second measure, with the motive in the tenor,
and the same E4 and Gs4 in the upper voices.11 Why shouldn’t it be treated
like a second measure?
A further irony is the degree to which hypermeter fades from the piece
once it has helped to do in E major. During the next few measures, a degree
of emphasis is placed on the downbeats of the ostensibly weak measures
(mm. 10 and 12) by the development of complicated, many-voiced suspen-
sions, resolving during those measures. And because the rhythms of the first
two half-measures of the motive, q q q q q q and q. e q , proliferate independently
in both halves of the measure, the potential of the 6/4 measure itself to
sound hypermetric is strengthened. By the time this passage reaches its
goal, a cadence in G-sharp minor (m. 14), approached with a stretto of the
complete rhythm q q q q q q q. je q in the outer voices (mm. 12–13), the measure
has become my world and my sense of it as strong or weak has gone.
Need I point out that the process of modulation to G-sharp minor makes
no use of the E-major triad? I’m not sure how to go about hearing the unre-
alized potential for it to have done so, but I definitely perceive the prompt
reinflection of the C-sharp minor triad toward G-sharp minor, and more
generally sense that all the functional commerce is among minor triads (and
their dominants).
In this analysis, I’ve been proceeding from a hearing of the piece to some
more technical observation that supports it. I won’t say proceeding toward
that hearing’s “structural” substrate; I think there is no boundary to be drawn
between more detailed elaboration of the hearing report and the identifica-
tion of facts in the score that could be imagined to elicit the hearing (and as
I said earlier, I am not very interested in there being such a boundary). If I
were proceeding in the direction of my first three analyses, toward a defini-
tion of a hearing, I could imagine a number of different hearings being
made of the information I have provided so far.
One would be a hearing that I mentioned, not very respectfully, as I was
getting started: there is no modulation to E major—don’t fall for it. You can
hear going in that there’s no cadence to E major, you can hear that the
motive is deflected before it’s completed, and you ought to be listening for
the larger motion anyway. I can’t stop anyone from taking this position, even
if I don’t find it very interesting or, more important, very attentive to the par-
ticulars of the passage. Arguing against it wouldn’t seem like the right sort of
response; but I might wonder where it is established that a larger motion,
such as the modulation to the dominant, ought to be expected to be direct.
Another hearing would recognize the movement toward E major, and
196 joseph dubiel

then hear the larger motion uncovered by E major’s dissolution. Thus it is no

mistake to hear the local E major; it’s simply that something larger was going
on as well, and a realization of this gradually takes over. If an event sounds
like a modulation for a moment, then it is a modulation for a moment; if this
modulation isn’t borne out by the continuation, then it isn’t. This is a view
with which I’m reasonably comfortable. In this case, I like its emphasis on
the change of timescale, from the localness and detail of the E major to the
slowness and imperturbability of what supplants it (and proves to have been
there all along). This hearing can even recognize a hint of indifference in the
slower progression.
The hearing that I have been trying to articulate goes further. The sense
of loss that I am trying to portray really does depend on acknowledging an
element of misconstrual in my perception. In a sense, it was a mistake to
invest in E major—in the sense that lots of factors turn out to have been
arrayed against this perception, including ones that I allowed myself, indeed
tried, to ignore, overlook, overcome, whatever I call it. After suggesting E
major, this passage drops it in a way that leaves me feeling responsible for it,
while it goes on as though the intimation of E major never happened. What
defines my project, I can now say, is my effort to understand how the notes
might interact with, specifically promote, my awareness of my own involve-
ment in the forming of these perceptions. This is crucial to the specific sense
of loss that I am trying to articulate.
I would like to continue this thought experiment by speculating about
how to let this loss affect my hearing of the rest of the piece. As I suggested
when beginning this analysis, I would especially like to find a way to do so that
does not involve looking for the lost thing in every crevice.12 The last thing
I want to do is show that the piece is orderly after all, because E major isn’t
really lost.
The piece is permanently marked by its brush with E major in at least one
way: the motive is never whole again. I have already pointed out the separa-
tion of the two halves of the motive’s first measure, beginning immediately
after the E-major triad: a continuous succession of versions of just the eighth-
note figure, passing from voice to voice, coexisting with a scattering of the
dotted figure. And the dotted figure is often isolated, generally not main-
taining its original form of a step motion to the next downbeat. The com-
plete original configuration is attempted or approximated at important tri-
adic arrivals later in the piece, but never manages to recur. In the Gs-minor
triad (m. 14), the figure’s mid-measure leap is diffused into a written arpeg-
giation, and the descent, with its usual rhythm lost, trails off without cover-
ing its normal distance. In the Fs-minor triad (m. 20) the motive comes
closer to its original form, but again deviates before completing its descent,
this time by continuing in eighth notes, not pausing on the last quarter. So
it is specifically the latter part of the motive that is never restored. After these
uncertainty, disorientation, and loss 197

two times, the complete motive is not really attempted again, even though
the prelude has almost half its time yet to run; and for that matter none of
these near attempts is in the upper voice.
What is it like to hear this? I’d have to be analytically on edge to notice the
motive’s not recurring, let alone its not recurring as a reaction to something
that happens to E major early on. I would expect the fact to strike me, not at
any particular point, but perhaps as something about the tone of the contin-
uation, the way the prelude spends the rest of its time in flux, thematically
and to some degree harmonically. Apart from the incipits of the principal
motive, the thing that the prelude comes nearest to “recapitulating” is its
modulating sequence; and it is remarkable how strangely placed and blurred
this is. Its beginning overlaps the Fs-minor motivic statement (perhaps even
takes over from it), half a measure out of its original metric position; only the
upper voice is parallel to the earlier passage; and the newly composed lower
voices are only intermittently sequential (the second half of m. 22 is approx-
imately parallel to the second half of m. 21). Nowhere can the prelude work
itself up to a decisive large-scale dominant: what seems to happen is that the
dominant triad is laid over the root of the subdominant, as a big 42 chord (this
happens in m. 29, after one more start on the motive in an Fs triad, and it
eventuates in the scale that produces the Bn against Bs), and then the piece
goes into its most extreme state of textural flux, in effect a written two-voice
cadenza, reeling further and further from its motives until the cadence.
It is hard to describe hearing what the piece does not do. I suppose this
must involve infusing my hearing of what the piece does do with a sense of
“instead of” or “when it might have”; and it would be difficult to identify this
sense with particular times (when does the piece not go to the dominant?).
It would be difficult to make it part of my listening to tot them up as evidence
that E major must have been really important, as I have (more or less) been
doing analytically. Most of what there is to hear from them, I have been sug-
gesting, is a change in the prelude’s tone, a loss of clarity of articulation.
This is the attitude I would take, as well, toward the dissonant Bn of mea-
sure 29, to which I referred earlier: insofar as I recognize the pitch as a ref-
erence to E major at all, I want to interpret the reference as an indication of
just how far we are from a recovery of E major. Theorists often use the idea of
reference very casually, often running it together with “resemblance” and
leaving it at that. But a reference doesn’t always have to be a positive one; an
event can take its meaning in significant part from its relation to E major but
not necessarily sound like E major. A particularly delicate instance of this
occurs in the passage that revisits the modulating sequence (mm. 20–24).
Supposing that a diatonic circle of fifths is a relevant model for the passage—
certainly its last few steps (mm. 23–24) clearly express the roots Gs, Cs, Fs—
then its first few roots, after the Fs from which it begins, could well have been
B, E, A. Of course they aren’t allowed to be: the details of the (nonsequen-
198 joseph dubiel

tial) counterpoint, including elaborate on-the-beat passing motion delaying

the B and a 7–6 resolution of Ds to Cs over E, prevent my hearing these major
triads, and indeed superimpose the sound of the primary triads of C-sharp
minor. To work these details back into my hearing would be in effect to start
this essay over; and this is no time to do that.
I’ve been talking about some musical percepts that don’t carry the con-
notations of intellectual mastery; now I’ll end by rearticulating a few values
and intentions, without particularly trying to clinch anything. I’d like the
main value of my analyses to be something like responsiveness instead, so
that what I’m demonstrating in presenting them is my ability to be led,
nudged, and pushed by the music I’m discussing, whether or not this impe-
tus corresponds to a prior model I hold of what I ought to allow to happen
to me. A related value is frankness. You don’t distinguish between two things
that are different? Fine; say so in your analysis. You hear something in a way
that the further progress of the music doesn’t sustain? That’s interesting to
know about.
It is along these lines that a notion like “structure” might serve as a way to
hold open the possibility of discovery, the possibility of responding aurally
to something in a piece to which I was not antecedently attuned. And
although I may derive a stimulus from some bit of musical analysis, it is
important that I avoid any sense of obligation to listen to, or for, the partic-
ular facts the analysis manages to mention, in the terms in which it mentions
them—obligation to push the experience back along the chain of its possible
causes, one might say. A lot of the anxiety about “structural listening,” I sus-
pect, has to do with people’s picking up this sense of obligation, and wishing
not to fall short. By this discussion, I hope at least to some degree to deflect
the fear and resentment that can attach to the idea of “structure.”
I would like to retain the idea primarily as a source of wonder. I hope that
thinking about musical structure as I am proposing might help us to
acknowledge the power of musical sound to realize systems of resemblance
and contrast, categorization and progression, that may not be given to us
elsewhere—which is to say, its power to stimulate us to entertain these sys-
tems, forming and changing at various angles to the perceptions that they

I thank Christopher Bailey, Marlon Feld, Jason Freeman, Marion A. Guck, Richard
Plotkin, Martin Scherzinger, and Melanie Schoenberg for valuable comments on var-
ious aspects of this essay.
1. I want to acknowledge my indebtedness, throughout this discussion, to several
writers, and this may be the point when specific connections are easiest to draw. Mark
uncertainty, disorientation, and loss 199

DeBellis, in Music and Conceptualization (1995), shows how the idea of perceiving
something under one concept and another, or perhaps under none, more efficiently
does much of the theoretical work that is usually attempted with the ideas of con-
scious and unconscious perception or, even more vaguely, with background and fore-
ground. Kendall Walton (1993) and Marion A. Guck (1993) describe and illustrate
the possibility of a cause of one’s experience becoming, through analysis, another
object of appreciation.
2. It is interesting to notice, incidentally, how, in the second act (less obviously
characterized by unfulfilled longing), this theme pointedly and repeatedly does not
enter to continue any of the very many references to the deceptive cadence.
3. By pointing out that the bass notes Ds and E that precede the thematic entrance
occur within inchoate versions of the theme—up a small interval, down a big one,
B–C–Ds, C–Cs–E—Richard Plotkin suggested to me a still more complex story, in
which the theme’s agency cannot be discounted, even though its identity is still blurry.
4. There is no metronome mark; but if the speed of the measure were set at
q = 63–66—practically the default tempo of Feldman’s late music, as Paul Nauert
has pointed out to me—then a sixty-fourth note would last something like 1/26 or
1/25 of a second, only slightly longer than the period of the vibrations of the low-
est A on the piano, which come twenty-seven and one-half to the second. It seems
safe to say that this duration is not perceptible as a duration.
5. No one is more scrupulous than Lewin about the difference between an elab-
orated analysis and the assembly of technical material to inform such an analysis—
even here, where he has done such a remarkable job of building qualities of move-
ment and implication into the technical material. And therefore I wish to be very
clear that my subsequent reflections on this material are not intended as criticism of
Lewin’s ingenious proposals; rather, they represent my continuation after the point
where his article turns to other matters.
6. Of course, E itself represents another moment of incompletion under the
transformation that Ds reinforces, T6; its counterpart under this transformation, Bf,
is the next new pitch class to enter the piece.
7. For an extended discussion of listening to single notes in this way, and, more
generally, of treating “structure” as a way to confer characteristics upon individual
elements, see Hirata 1996. The influence of ideas developed by Hirata in her disser-
tation about Feldman (Hirata 2002) is too pervasive for me to identify (it is by no
means limited to my discussion of Feldman, and indeed may be more prominent in
all the other examples), and I gratefully acknowledge it throughout.
8. There is a Bn on the downbeat of the second measure of the sequence, and it is
good enough to make the bass Fs dissonant; but either it is absent by the time the bass
resolves to E or it is dissonant against Cs in the tenor, which moves in parallel with
the bass.
9. The last quarter note of the measure is a moment of subtle harmonic interest
through the opening statements of the theme, expressing an ostensibly neighboring
harmony that, a little more each time, shows the potential to do something more—
prepare a dissonance (m. 2), displace the main harmony (m. 3)—and then recedes.
10. It is obvious how one would go about dismissing these consonances as zufäl-
lig, in Schenker’s sense; but it is more interesting to recognize the relevance of their
200 joseph dubiel

triadic implications to the powerful conjuring of E major in a very brief time. I am

inspired here by Schoenberg’s discussion of some “passing harmonies” in a Bach
chorale, in the “ ‘Non-Harmonic’ Tones” chapter of Schoenberg 1978 (pp. 342–43).
11. It isn’t impossible to hear a progression to the soprano Gs across the down-
beats of the preceding sequence, Cs–B–A–Gs, a slow rendering of the end of the orig-
inal motive. This works two ways: it does that much more to establish the E-major
triad as comparable to the opening C-sharp minor one, and by the same token, it
places the E-major triad within the grasp of the C-sharp minor one.
12. I have done an analysis like that, finding ways to interpret the lack of any ref-
erence to an unresolved Ds as a way of dealing with the unresolved Ds in the
Beethoven Violin Concerto; see Dubiel 1996.

Collective Listening
Postmodern Critical Processes and MTV
andrew dell ’ antonio

Structural listening strategies imply a model of one-to-one communication:

the listener, in understanding the structural development of a musical text,
is made privy to the composer’s creative processes. Under this model, the
composer’s intentions are tied up with an individual’s understanding of the
unfolding of a musical work. This is the kind of authorial presence and indi-
vidual interpretative engagement that modernist critics such as Adorno,
Horkheimer, and Jameson have bemoaned as lacking in popular music.
Semiotician Umberto Eco has instead argued for an “intention of the
text”: the text itself, providing clues as to how it “wants” to be read, may pre-
sent sufficient intentionality to create its own “Ideal Reader” (or perhaps, in
the case of music, “Ideal Listener”). This model opens up the interpretative
field and might provide a useful alternative to the search for a composer’s
original intentions. Eco’s discussion still, however, works within the frame-
work of individual communication: a text creates an ideal recipient.
Expanding on Eco’s lead, this essay explores the idea of the “intention of
a musical text” in the context of music videos and MTV. These are complex
sources, comprising multiple layers of media and hence authorship. Music
videos are also consumed in ways that differ from Eco’s model of detached
critical reading, and thus construct their “Ideal Viewer/Listener” (or Ideal
Appraiser) through significantly different procedures. Most importantly for
this essay, I will argue that the Ideal Appraiser for such texts is not individ-
ual but collective: music videos on MTV appear to be meant to be consumed
not by an individual but by a group. Indeed, in those occasions in which MTV
displays critical reactions to videos, such reactions are collective rather than
individual: MTV portrays collectivity and group participation as crucial to the
listening/viewing experience.
The idea of a collective listener/reader for a collective text is incompati-
202 andrew dell’antonio

ble with Adorno and Horkheimer’s formulations of artistic autonomy or

Jameson’s ideal of stable subjectivity, but it does seem to mesh with recent
theories (such as those of Deleuze and Guattari) that characterize post-
modern subject positions as multiple and shifting. Collective listening strate-
gies may be not so much postmodern as non-modernist; their presence and
premises certainly call into question an idealization of structural listening as
normative practice.
Since the idea of a collective critical process seems to resonate with MTV’s
public, this raises the question whether MTV has fostered this tendency or
responded to it (or possibly both): Gramsci’s concept of “organic intellec-
tual” activity will be brought to bear on this issue. MTV’s portrayals of col-
lective critical response to music video are undoubtedly shaped by the net-
work’s commercial considerations, but they also create spaces for active
participation on the part of MTV’s public. Collective critical processes may
therefore well be a viable example of “organic intellectual” practices within
late-capitalist culture.

1.1 Structural listening strategies imply a model of one-to-one communication: the lis-
tener, in understanding the structural development of a musical text, is made privy to the
composer’s creative processes. Under this model, the composer’s intentions are tied up
with an individual’s understanding of the unfolding of a musical work.

This is the model that Rose Rosengard Subotnik outlines in her essay
“Toward a Deconstruction of Structural Listening” from her recent collec-
tion Deconstructive Variations:

The concept of structural listening, as Schoenberg and Adorno presented it,

was intended to describe a process wherein the listener follows and compre-
hends the unfolding realization, with all of its detailed inner relationships, of
a generating musical conception, or what Schoenberg calls an ‘idea’ . . . Such
structural listening discourages kinds of understanding that require culturally
specific knowledge of things external to the compositional structure, such as
conventional associations or theoretical systems . . . Structural listening is an
active mode that, when successful, gives the listener the sense of composing the
piece as it actualizes itself in time. (Subotnik 1996, 150)

As Subotnik observes, this model (usually tempered by some degree of his-

torical contextualization) has long been the prevalent model in the Ameri-
can academic musical curriculum. Having provided a preliminary “decon-
struction” of structural listening strategies by revealing the historical
contingency of such models, she goes on to speculate on alternative listen-
ing strategies, settling on an ideal of a more comprehensive “stylistic listen-
ing” process.1
It will not be my task in this essay to examine the implications of Subot-
collective listening 203

nik’s proposed “stylistic listening” paradigm; others in this collection have

done so (see, for example, the essays by Tamara Levitz and Martin
Scherzinger). Rather, I will explore another alternative to a “structural lis-
tening” model, one that appears to emerge from the appraisal of popular
music videos, especially as reflected through programming on the Music
Television network (MTV).2 I will argue that this model rejects the assump-
tions that allow the critical listening paradigm to operate, and presents an
alternative paradigm based on collective rather than individual critical pro-
cesses, immersion rather than critical distance, and fluidity rather than sta-
bility of subject and object positions. I will further argue that this model is
useful not only for “postmodern” repertories such as music videos, but for
any “non-modernist” repertories, since through its prism we can see the his-
torical assumptions and limitations of the structural listening model. But
before describing the “collective appraisal” model, we should explore some
of the assumptions of the structural listening process and their implications
for the study of vernacular musics.

1.2 This is the kind of authorial presence and individual interpretative engagement that
modernist critics such as Adorno, Horkheimer, and Jameson have bemoaned as lacking
in popular music.

The idea of autonomy and irreproducibility as essential to a work of art (or

any “authentic” cultural artifact) is linked in the modernist tradition to the
ideals of autonomy, self-determination, and uniqueness as defining charac-
teristics of the individual, whether as author/composer or as reader/listener.
Fredric Jameson, for example, remarks that “the modernist aesthetic is in
some way organically linked to the conception of a unique self and a private
identity, a unique personality and individuality, which can be expected to
generate its own unique vision of the world and to forge its own unique,
unmistakable style” ( Jameson 1983, 114). His rhetorical repetition of the
word “unique” underlines the importance of autonomy and individuality to
a modernist notion of the artwork.
Criticism of mass culture from the modernist perspective suggests that
such “uniqueness” is invariably annihilated by the economic considerations
implicit in mass-produced cultural items. According to Max Horkheimer, for
example, “the economic necessity for rapid return of the considerable cap-
ital invested in each [motion] picture forbids the pursuit of the inherent
logic of each work of art—of its own autonomous necessity” (Horkheimer
1972, 288). In other words, considerations of efficiency and profitability pre-
vent the creator of the mass-culture work from taking the time—and the aes-
thetic risks—that Horkheimer considers inevitable for the organic develop-
ment of a true artwork.
Horkheimer’s assessment of the effect of the commercial culture industry
204 andrew dell’antonio

is aimed in this case at motion pictures, but such critiques are regularly
applied to other commercially-driven artifacts, including popular music.
Jameson explicitly draws a comparison between the “authenticity” of the
experience of “popular” versus “classical” music, to the clear detriment of
the former:
I will argue that we never hear any [contemporary pop works] “for the first
time”; instead, we live a constant exposure to them in all kinds of different sit-
uations . . . this is a very different situation from the first bewildered audition
of a complicated classical piece . . . the passionate attachment one can form
[to pop works] are fully as much a function of our own familiarity as of the work
itself . . . what we listen to is ourselves, our own previous auditions. ( Jameson
1979, 129–30)

In Jameson’s comparison, the listening experience of a “complicated classi-

cal piece” clearly pinpoints the complex unfolding of the work as the locus
of meaning—and this would seem entirely in keeping with a “structural lis-
tening” model. More implicit under this formulation is the suggestion that
listening to classical music is about perceiving an independent and self-
sufficient work that commands our exclusive attention (to master our “bewil-
derment”), whereas the “generic” nature of popular music (the term “piece”
is used by Jameson only to refer to classical music) implies the lack of a self-
sufficient, attention-demanding work. It would almost seem that in listening
to popular music, a subject cannot distinguish between her/himself and the
music—revealing a dangerous pre-Oedipal inability to separate self and
Other. Indeed, Jameson argues that
in mass culture, repetition effectively volatilizes the original object—the “text,”
the “work of art”—so that the student of mass culture has no primary object of
study. . . . Mass culture presents us with a methodological dilemma which the
conventional habit of positing a stable object of commentary or exegesis in the
form of a primary text or work is disturbingly unable to focus, let alone to
resolve. ( Jameson 1979, 137–38)

For Jameson, in losing the status of “stable object of commentary,” “the

music itself” has vaporized as a locus of meaning in popular music. But his
formulation, which appears to posit a “structural listening” model as a
marker of artistic autonomy and hence cultural value, implies a common
understanding of the nature of a “work.” That understanding is implicitly
underpinned by the modernist ideals of artistic autonomy outlined above;
indeed, Jameson himself characterizes the idea of artistic individuality as a
modernist trope.
While the idea of engaging with a musical work may seem to presuppose
an autonomous text (as well as an autonomous listening subject), I would
argue that this is a historically contingent model; it does not allow for cul-
collective listening 205

tural forms that break from an ideal of “high art,” particularly those that
place less emphasis on the creative primacy of a single author of a stable text.
Pace Jameson, I would argue that critical engagement does not presuppose
“high art” repertories; indeed, as Simon Frith observes,
people bring similar questions to high and low art, that their pleasures and sat-
isfactions are rooted in similar analytic issues, similar ways of relating what they
see or hear to how they think and feel. The differences between high and low
emerge because these questions are embedded in different historical and
material circumstances, and are therefore framed differently. (Frith 1996, 19)

As we will see below, music videos do not match Jameson’s modernist model
of autonomy, hence an exploration of music videos must find a different
conceptual framework for the interaction between texts and their appraisal.

2.1 Semiotician Umberto Eco has instead argued for an “intention of the text”: the text
itself, providing clues as to how it “wants” to be read, may present sufficient intentional-
ity to create its own “Ideal Reader” (or perhaps, in the case of music, “Ideal Listener”). This
model opens up the interpretative field and might provide a useful alternative to the
search for a composer’s original intentions.

Italian semiotician and critic Umberto Eco, attempting to work around the
need for stable and verifiable authorial subjectivity while still retaining the pos-
sibility of predictable signification, focuses on the notion that a text itself
(rather than its author’s intended message) may contain the locus of meaning.
“A text,” Eco suggests, “as it appears in its linguistic manifestation or surface,
represents a chain of expressive devices that must be actualized/deployed by
its recipient” (Eco 1998, 50). Furthermore,
A text is in any case woven up with “white spaces,” gaps to be filled . . . because,
the more its function is aesthetic rather than explanatory, a text wants to leave
the interpretative initiative up to its reader, even if it usually wants to be inter-
preted within a certain margin of unequivocality. A text wants someone to help
make it work. (Eco 1998, 52)

The interpretative process, as Eco depicts it, involves a reader “operating” a

text (much as a piece of machinery) so that it will function properly. In
order to operate a text successfully, a reader must have a variety of linguistic
tools and skills, which Eco refers to as “competences”; these involve vocabu-
lary (both general and specific), understanding of the historical and/or cul-
tural context of the text’s “story,” knowledge of other texts that are con-
nected to the tradition of the text to be operated, etc. In Eco’s terms, a reader
who has all the competences required to operate a text successfully can be
considered an “Ideal Reader” (“Lettore Modello”). While Eco suggests that
each text is created with an Ideal Reader in mind, he also observes that
206 andrew dell’antonio

to predict one’s Ideal Reader means not only to “hope” that he exists, it means
shaping the text so as to create him. A text not only rests upon, but also con-
tributes to the production of a competence. Thus perhaps a text is less lazy, its
request to cooperate less liberal than it may want to make us believe. (Eco
1998, 56)

One of the principal ways by which the text shapes the reader’s interpre-
tative decisions is by leading the reader to develop a hypothesis about what
Eco calls the topic of the text:
The topic is a hypothesis that depends on the initiative of the reader, who for-
mulates it in a rather crude way, as a question (“what the hell is this about?”)
which translates itself into a tentative proposed title (“this is probably about
X”). The topic is thus a meta-textual instrument that a text can either imply or
contain explicitly in the form of topic markers, titles, subtitles, guiding expres-
sions. On the basis of the topic, the reader will decide to magnify or minimize
the semantic properties of the terms at hand, establishing a level of interpreta-
tive coherence, which we shall call isotopia. (Eco 1998, 92)

The reader, in other words, is responsible for establishing a coherent set of

guidelines for interpretation of a text (what Eco calls isotopia) on the basis
of the topic (what the reader thinks the text “is about”) that the reader has
derived from the instructions (implicit or explicit) provided by the text itself.
The reader then bases her/his continuing parsing of the text, and decisions
to focus on or ignore specific elements (at all levels of structure and con-
tent), on the coherent isotopia. The text’s effect on a reader’s negotiation
between the isotopia and the topic is, for Eco, a crucial indication of the con-
struction of an Ideal Reader. For example, Eco suggests that a well-crafted
mystery text will attempt to induce its Ideal Reader to overlook crucial
semantic clues on first reading, clues that can later be discovered by reread-
ing the text after the reader has discovered the solution.
According to Eco, then, a text “predicts the participation” of its reader
and indeed shapes the reader’s interpretative decisions; within the text itself
are the makings of its Ideal Reader. A text is a “machine” that requires a
reader to “help it function,” and in its functioning it gives the reader clues
to what the next interpretative step should be, thereby anticipating and cre-
ating a specific readerly imagination; through these clues, a text can lead its
reader to develop a topic, a tentative understanding of what the text is “talk-
ing about”; a reader then makes further interpretative decisions based on the
topic, creating in her/his mind a specific coherent scenario of meaning (iso-
topia) that will lead to subsequent decisions to focus on or ignore specific
items offered by the text, which will in turn reinforce or hone the topic in a
sort of hermeneutic circle.
Eco’s focus on the “blank spaces” in a work, his perceived need for an
ideal recipient (reader/listener) to engage diverse sets of interpretative
collective listening 207

vocabularies in order to make a work “function,” and in general his model

of a multifaceted yet coherent isotopia seem to approach Subotnik’s sugges-
tion of a “stylistic listening” approach. Eco’s model might thus provide an
interesting paradigm for interpretative work in specific musical repertories.
But there is a basic assumption in Eco’s model of “intention of the text” that
makes it not entirely suitable, as it stands, for the project at hand.

2.2 Eco’s discussion still, however, works within the framework of individual communi-
cation: a text creates an ideal recipient.

While Eco moves away from authorial intentionality, his interpretative

model implies one-to-one communication between a text and its reader. The
dialogue between text and reader, and their mutual construction/facilita-
tion, is a private, individual exchange. In Eco’s model, locating intentional-
ity on text still relies on the stability and coherence of a text (a text needs to
be stable if it is to have intentionality) and of its reader (an individual needs
to have a stable subjectivity from which to address a text). Furthermore,
Eco’s model is still founded on texts that can be read non-linearly—and
more interesting texts often “encourage” their readers (in Eco’s formula-
tion) to stop and return to previous passages, or to skip ahead, or to read
more slowly or more quickly, and otherwise to challenge the linear flow of
the written text in order to grasp more subtle aesthetic meanings. Indeed,
this non-linear reading of texts is very much akin to the “unpacking” of a
musical score, which is then thought of as a fixed “sounded text,” within
structural listening practices.3 But since I am interested in interpretative
strategies to address musical phenomena that are not easily characterized as
“stable texts,” and recipients that are often not stable or even systematically
self-aware, my task is to take Eco’s model in a somewhat different direction.

3.1 Expanding on Eco’s lead, this essay explores the idea of the “intention of a musical
text” in the context of music videos and MTV. These are complex sources, comprising
multiple layers of media and hence authorship.

In moving from a literary to a musical text, the most direct way to translate
Eco’s notion of the Ideal Reader might seem to be a notion of an “Ideal Lis-
tener.” Yet the term “listener” is not entirely suited to my purpose, especially
in the context of a discussion of music videos, which involve multimedia con-
sumption. Indeed, the notion of “listening” is itself problematic: it implies
that the sense of hearing can—or should—be detached from other senses
when encountering a multimedia work.4 For the sake of this discussion, I will
use the term Ideal Appraiser, derived from a cross-pollination of Eco’s
model with Gracyk’s notion of “appraisal” as the process of responding to a
multimedia work.5
208 andrew dell’antonio

Music videos, then, are multimedia works resulting from the intersection of
multiple authors and artistic personas. It is perhaps a self-evident point, when
dealing with rock/pop repertories, that the author of the lyrics of a rock/pop
song is often not the same as the composer of the tune (or, indeed, that differ-
ent elements of the tune—melody, harmony, orchestration/arrangement—
may be contributed by different individuals), and that the lead singer is often
yet another individual (not to mention other band members and additional
performers, such as dancers, a prominent feature in many pop and hip-hop
videos). The songwriters/performers may have control over the video’s sound
and overall musical structure (videos are, after all, supposed to match “their”
song rather closely, though different styles of video do so in a variety of ways,
many avoiding or disrupting linear narrative), but directors generally are
known (and sought out by performers) for bringing their own specific “look”
or visual style to a video. The question of the relative “weight” of visual and
sound parameters as perceived by the video appraiser is a tricky one, and for
the moment I shall sidestep it, limiting myself to observing that both elements
can certainly be appraised simultaneously, even if to varying degrees of con-
sciousness and attention. Ultimately, then, music videos are a prime example
of a multimedia work produced by a large number of authors, with differing
(possibly competing) expressive/semiotic agendas.6

3.2 Music videos are also consumed in ways that differ from Eco’s model of detached
critical reading, and thus construct their “ideal viewer/listener” (or Ideal Appraiser)
through significantly different procedures.

Compounding the complexity of multiple intentionality, music videos are

consumed/appraised in a variety of different circumstances, sometimes in
their entirety but more often “partially.” They can be appraised as songs on
radio or CDs, or as videos on MTV, at clubs, or in other venues (for
example, retail stores); such encounters are commonly “partial” in that only
a portion of the video or song is offered to the appraiser. (We shall discuss
the significance of MTV’s common use of incomplete videos below.) Hybrid
versions of songs, often with visual elements from the video, appear in hit
movies and even (in fragmented/altered but recognizable form) in televi-
sion commercials.
This multiple valence of the music video and its components has strong
economic implications, not only in the strictest financial sense, but also in
the context of an “economy of pleasure,” and this is well expressed in Marx-
ist terms by Andrew Goodwin:

The essential element of pleasure in viewing the clips must involve more than
purely visual pleasure . . . the clips must encompass a delivery of pleasure that
relates visuals to the music that is being sold, that provides an experience of
collective listening 209

use-value offering a promise of further use-values in the commodity itself

(Goodwin 1992, 70–71).

A video must be able to function as a “commercial” for the song with which
it is associated, especially since videos do not make up a significant source
of income for either the artist or the record company (indeed, record
companies tend to consider videos to be unfortunate but necessary
expenses, as Goodwin points out). Yet a video cannot serve only that func-
tion, since MTV (in selling its commercial time, which can take up as much
of 30 percent of each broadcast hour) needs to be able to rely on its view-
ers’ willingness—indeed, eagerness—to watch a video repeatedly (I shall
refer to this phenomenon as iterative viewing/appraisal), and indeed to
tune to the channel in the hopes of seeing a favorite video. Thus, the video
must be able to deliver pleasure (and hence signify) in its own right, in a
way that supplements the song, and must offer meanings that rely on
repeated pleasure in the course of successive appraisals. A desirability of
iterative consumption (both of the video as a whole and of its primary com-
ponent, the song) must thus be built into the video’s construction of an
Ideal Appraiser.
One further characteristic of the genre (which is shared by all time-con-
tingent cultural forms, including film and of course heard—as opposed to
score-read—music) is that appraisers cannot interrupt their “reading” of a
video to review the meanings of a previous passage, and hence to refine their
understanding of the video’s topic. This immersive condition is in direct con-
trast to the detached/detachable nature of textual reading; as Eco remarks,
“The more complex a text is, its reading is never linear; the reader is forced
to look back and re-read the text, perhaps several times, even in some cases
beginning from the end” (Eco 1998, 91). Despite the undeniable complex-
ity of a video’s layered signification, however, the video appraiser lacks this
resource available to Eco’s text reader. (While it is possible to pause or
rewind a recording, music videos are seldom consumed on videotape.) If a
video signified like a complex written text, one would assume that repeated
viewings/hearings would be needed in order for appraisers to form a coher-
ent isotopia. Indeed, it may well be that the iterative phenomenon of “heavy
rotation” (MTV’s repeated showing of a video in different time slots, espe-
cially in the few weeks following its introduction) is meant to offer the
appraising public repeated opportunities to assimilate the information that
the video provides. I have speculated elsewhere (see Dell’Antonio 1999,
72–73) that iterative exposure to a text/performance can replace “critically
distant” reflection for the purposes of immersion-based critical processes;
this may be what MTV is trying to achieve.
But does the appraiser require multiple rehearings/viewings in order to
understand a video, or (pace Jameson) can videos signify strongly enough to
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enable the consumer to shape meaning (topic, isotopia) the first time around?
And how much of the video must be appraised in order for the appraiser to
engage the topic/isotopia dialectic? We should note here that seeing a video
from beginning to end is not a given on MTV: introductions by the network’s
“video jockeys” (VJs) often overlap with the first few seconds, and on many
shows (particularly the popular call-in show Total Request Live, on which more
below) only portions of videos are shown. The fact that these fragmented ver-
sions make up a substantial part of MTV’s schedule implies that videos do not
require structural integrity—a marker, one would presume, of Horkheimer’s
“autonomous necessity”—in order to be effectively appraised.
If videos are frequently appraised in versions lacking structural integrity,
it would seem that structural appraisal (hence structural listening) is not cru-
cial to the process of understanding music videos. The Ideal Appraiser that
music videos envision is not a structural appraiser. But then, Eco is careful
to distinguish what he calls the fabula of a text (the linear sequence of events
that make up its structure) from the topic (which is, as we saw above, “what
the text is about”). And if the two elements are strongly linked in the textual
examples Eco provides (and, certainly, in a structural/formalist notion of
musical meaning), they need not be—cannot be, I will argue—in an
appraisal of a music video and a concomitant understanding of its topic.
Indeed, Goodwin has observed that the “multilayered text” of a popular
song (which, following McClary and Walser, he sees as composed of a “stack-
ing up” of different components of social meaning; Goodwin 1992, 94) does
not work according to the linear correspondences and connections of real-
ist narrative, and hence cannot be read (we might say appraised) employing
the same techniques. This is all the more true of videos, which combine the
“meaning stack” of a song with a visual “meaning stack” that can further
break down any tendency toward linear narrative progression.7 This is not to
say that videos inherently exemplify Jamesonian assemblages of empty sig-
nifiers; as Goodwin has rightly pointed out, the blanket description of MTV
as a postmodern phenomenon, and of videos as quintessentially postmodern
texts, has relied on mistaken assumptions about the predominance of visual
and cinematic components in the structure of music video.8 All the same, the
lack of dependable integrity discourages a structural/teleological appraisal
of fabula in music videos. Appraisal techniques must turn elsewhere to
develop the topic, and we shall return to this issue shortly.
One final important issue differentiating the video appraisal process
from Eco’s model is the thorny question of whether videos are “texts” at all,
or whether they should best be understood as recorded performances, and
what the distinction might mean for the collective appraiser. “Before trying
to make sense of performance as a way of working with a text,” suggests Frith,
“we should first be sure we understand how performance is different, how it
is ‘non-textual’. What makes something a performance in the first place?”
collective listening 211

(Frith 1996, 204). For our purposes we might ask, to what degree is a music
video “performative” and to what degree is it “textual”? Frith cites anthro-
pologist Richard Bauman in observing that “a performance is ‘an emergent
structure’: it comes into being only as it is being performed . . . Bauman
[also] suggests that performance is an ‘enhancement’, involving a height-
ened ‘intensity’ of communication: it makes the communicative process
itself, the use of language and gesture, the focus of attention” (Frith 1996,
208). “Sincerity” or essential meaning. Frith argues, “cannot be measured by
searching for what lies behind the performance: if we are moved by a per-
former we are moved by what we immediately hear and see” (215).
Frith and Bauman’s characterization above hinges on immediacy as a nec-
essary component—even a defining trait—of the aesthetic experience of a
performance (as opposed to something perceived as a “text”).9 An experi-
ence that requires or foregrounds immediacy will necessarily require differ-
ent strategies for consumption than one that requires distancing or reflec-
tion. Of course, immediacy does not preclude awareness (conscious or
otherwise) of such structuring aspects as form: after all, listeners always bring
a panoply of generic expectations to a musical work, and those expectations
can include specific types of structural “milestones.” A foregrounding of
immediacy does, however, entail an ideal of (at least partial) surprise, a will-
ingness to release the kind of control over the workings of a musical event
that is implicit in an ideal of detached structural listening.
If process is foregrounded, focus on text and its completeness is not nec-
essary. Indeed, since completeness of a text can only be assessed through dis-
tancing, and performance (as theorized above) gains meaning through
immediacy and immersion, assessment of completeness cannot play any role
in appraising a performance. The notion of a complete/stable text is thus
rejected, or at best marginalized; and as we have speculated in Section 1.2
above, the idea of structural listening seems best suited for—arguably,
requires—an identifiable and stable text. Thus, structural listening would
seem unsuitable for understanding musical events that can be deemed “per-
formances” rather than “texts.”
Frith (1996, 225) suggests that music videos display the characteristics of
performance outlined above. It can be argued, however, that videos also dis-
play one of the primary characteristics of texts: they are fixed, not variable,
and can be recognized (and marketed) as stable entities. If videos are not
texts but performances (or, I would argue, text/performance hybrids), and
if the most crucial aesthetic aspect of a performance of rock/pop/rap music
(and, by extension, the performative aspect of a music video) is its immedi-
acy of signification, and if critical distance is impossible or undesirable when
appraising a performance (rather than a text), what other critical options
are available?
We might think of this another way, triangulating Eco’s textual model
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with the notion of structural listening and the distinction between text and
performance explored above. If a text calls attention to its unfolding mean-
ing (by asking its reader to arrive at a stable isotopia through postulating a
topic), a performance calls attention to the process of meaning-production
(the postulation of the topic) itself. If so, a performance is a quintessentially
social activity, since the members of the group witnessing a performance are
connected by their shared processing of the codes/signs generated by the
performance (their shared negotiation between topic and isotopia), much
more self-consciously than solitary readers of the same text can ever be. In
other words, the specific message of a performance (and, I would contend
with Frith, a music video) is not as crucial as the way the performance/video
reinforces understandings about what is collectively meaningful—whether
politically, socially, or aesthetically—and how the collective arrives at such
meanings. Indeed, the semantic codes that the video text/performance pro-
vides to its appraisers may serve (and, as we will see below, frequently do
serve) specifically to reinforce a topic that is explicitly collective.
The idea of the collective is, indeed, part and parcel of the sensibility sur-
rounding late twentieth-century popular music. As Lawrence Grossberg sug-
gests, “the consumption of rock constructs or expresses a ‘community’ ”;
Grossberg connects this with the “authenticity” of hard/folk rock culture,
which “assumes that authentic rock depends on its ability to articulate private
but common desires, feelings and experiences into a shared public lan-
guage” (Grossberg 1993, 202). The authenticity of rock depends on perme-
ability between public and private emotions: the boundaries between the
individual and the collective are not as clearly drawn as in the modernist par-
adigm of critical distance. The creative process itself is often portrayed as a
collective effort: as Frith observes,
since the mid-sixties the group (rather than the solo singer) has dominated
Anglo-American popular music (at least in terms of male voices), and if such
groups more often than not have a “lead” singer we rarely hear his voice com-
pletely unaccompanied. We are, that is, accustomed to the idea of a “group
voice.” (Frith 1996, 201)

If a collective expressive “voice” has long played a role in the “authentic” cre-
ative impulse of rock/pop, it is reasonable that this should be so for critical
approaches to the repertory as well. Along these lines, Frith suggests that
“dancing in public—listening in public—thus seems to be more expressive of
how we feel about our music, more truthful, than dancing, listening alone”
(Frith 1996, 240). Such a construct of authentic experience through collec-
tive rather than solitary enjoyment in rock and pop music culture is evident
in music videos, which often appeal to collectivity, each genre doing so in a
somewhat different way: heavy metal or punk/grunge bands incorporate
concert scenes with ecstatic, dancing/moshing/screaming fans; rap videos
collective listening 213

often have street scenes with the rappers surrounded by dancing fans and/or
gesturing, stone-faced homeboys; pop artists incorporate complex choreo-
graphed group dance sequences. The video appraiser is encouraged to see
her/himself as one of the collective of fans, or perhaps even (by sing-
ing/dancing along with the stars) “in sync” with the performers.
I would thus suggest that the critical model that music videos establish
is one of collective negotiation; thus the Ideal Appraiser they construct
is a collective, not an individual. The topic/isotopia of a video is negotiated
not according to Eco’s one-to-one model of a text and a solitary reader/
appraiser, but rather between a group of appraisers who collectively process
the semantic information provided by the video; and further, that process of
meaning-negotiation (i.e., the collective creation of a topic) is assumed to
be as crucial as final agreement on a stable set of meanings (or isotopia), if
not more so. Thus, in working toward a notion of the Ideal Appraiser of
music videos, one of the key elements is the breakdown of a single, stable
subject position—whether from the standpoint of the video or that of its

3.3 Most importantly for this essay, I will argue that the Ideal Appraiser for such texts is
not individual but collective: music videos on MTV appear to be meant to be consumed
not by an individual but by a group. Indeed, in those occasions in which MTV displays crit-
ical reactions to videos, such reactions are collective rather than individual: MTV portrays
collectivity and group participation as crucial to the listening/viewing experience.

Collective appraisal is certainly widely portrayed and promoted by the

medium that is undeniably most responsible for the dissemination of music
videos in America: the Music Television Channel, or MTV.10 When MTV por-
trays the process of appraising videos, it always portrays groups, never indi-
viduals. Since MTV has a great deal at stake in being seen as “authentic” by
its public (that is to say, “authentically” reflecting its public’s daily experi-
ence; more on this below), its portrayal of video appraisal is quite significant.
Though MTV’s “authenticity” is of course entirely constructed, the collective
listening processes it portrays would seem to be a realistic representation of
its public’s idea of the video-appraisal process.
I have discussed elsewhere (Dell’Antonio 1999) the collective listening
strategies reflected in the first MTV program to embody a collective critical
approach to video appraisal, Beavis & Butt-head (hereafter B&B). Not long
after B&B reached the height of its popularity in the mid-1990s, MTV began
introducing a viewer/listener-interactive program based on internet chat
technology, Yack Live.11 Yack Live took a number of different forms (most
often fans interacting during an interview or other special event with an
MTV-sponsored star, but also fan commentary on videos or other MTV
events) and was never a regular feature (it would be scheduled for a week,
214 andrew dell’antonio

then would change time slot or be discontinued until another special event
came along). When paired with music videos, Yack Live resulted in a format
remarkably similar to the collective commentary seen in B&B. MTV would
announce a time and a specific IRC chat room for its video-based Yack Live,
show a number of videos (either from its regular rotation or specially fea-
tured videos), and then monitor the chat room and broadcast the dialogue
on the chat rooms simultaneously with the videos.12 While the Yack Live chat
was ostensibly about the videos, and a number of the broadcasted comments
did indeed reflect on the video’s content, the dialogue between the chat par-
ticipants (sometimes up to fifteen or twenty interweaving individuals) was
anything but focused on video commentary. Like B&B, the interlocutors
moved freely from specific commentary to sparring/flirting with other
“chatters” to commenting on their state of mind. Still, the Yack Live chat was
by no means unconnected to the videos: in some sense, the entirety of the
exchanges entailed the negotiation of meanings and emotions surrounding
the appraisal of a video, instances of an immersion-based collective critical
process akin to the one seen in B&B.
Collective critical processes were again at stake in a short-lived MTV show
called Twelve Angry Viewers (hereafter 12AV), which aired in the period
between autumn 1997 and spring 1998. Through a process implicitly por-
trayed as random, each week MTV chose twelve “jurors” to represent its view-
ers.13 Each daily half-hour show presented three videos, each followed by dis-
cussion and each juror voting on a 1 to 5 scale; the video that received the
most points was declared the day’s winner. At the end of each week, jurors
voted on the winners of the four previous days, and the weekly winner was
put into “heavy rotation” (i.e., MTV pledged to show it on an especially fre-
quent basis) for an unspecified period of time.14
While offering an image of the critical process, MTV focused instead on the
ostensible results of that process; when jurors cast their votes, they were asked
to give only a number, and not a rationale for their choice (though often jurors
did provide a one-sentence explanation of their vote). Unlike B&B (which pre-
sented short excerpts of each video, thus foregrounding the protagonists’
commentary rather than the video), 12AV initially presented videos (almost)
in their entirety, perhaps with the ostensible goal of providing the jurors (and
the MTV viewership) a full “text” by which to judge the video. In later episodes,
as the commentary/discussion portion of the show was increased by one or
two minutes, smaller portions of the videos were shown.
Especially interesting for the purposes of this study was MTV’s depiction
of the critical process in 12AV: during the course of each video, a small but
well-visible “picture within the picture” provided the television viewer with
a silent image of the 12AV jurors sitting on couches and on the floor in front
of the TV (a visual link to the world of B&B, and probably yet another appeal
to “real-ness” on the part of MTV, on which more below), appraising the
collective listening 215

video—and talking among themselves, presumably (?) about the video at

hand. The unscripted and overlapping verbal interaction of the jurors dur-
ing the video was probably considered too potentially disruptive to be over-
laid onto the video soundtrack, hence their soundless commentary, which
served primarily as an icon of collective critical engagement. Like B&B and
the participants in the Yack Live chats, the collective critics of 12AV are
shown in the process of verbalizing the critical process during the act of
appraisal: once again critical distance is overshadowed by immersion and
immediate response.
But MTV seems to have perceived that, by segregating the critical
response available for the viewership to hear (the post-video discussion)
from the collective critical process (the muted interaction), it risked losing
the “authenticity” perceived through interactions in B&B and Yack Live. In
later episodes of 12AV, selected jurors’ comments were allowed to be heard
over the video soundtrack. As MTV increased its deployment of web-based
interaction through 1997, not only were MTV viewers encouraged to vote
online simultaneously with the jurors, but viewers’ comments were sporadi-
cally overlaid on the video image as a running text strip, in a clear reference
to the Yack Live format. The critical context was made to appear less medi-
ated through interjections of online commentators, since a “chat” context is
marked as inherently “spontaneous” in cyberculture. The combination of
“live” comments by jurors and online chat participants, overlaid visually
and/or aurally on the video that is being judged, was probably meant to cre-
ate an impression of immediacy and “everyman” participation—despite the
fact that the elements of such ostensibly unmediated/spontaneous multi-
media interaction were carefully staged by MTV.
It would seem that through 12AV MTV was trying to capitalize on the pow-
erful image of collective critical response, while reining in its potentially
dangerous or subversive unpredictability. In foregrounding the voting, the
most sterile and quantifiable part of the show, MTV may have been seeking
to avoid both distanced critical operations and the kind of prolix inter-
change, of the “high noise to signal ratio” variety, that characterized the
group critical process in B&B and Yack Live. The voting on the show exem-
plified judgments designed specifically for MTV’s purposes: the choice of
“hits” for heavy rotation, and the ostensible sanctioning of that choice by
“ordinary” viewers. 12AV then is best understood as providing a highly reg-
ulated and controlled image of the group critical process, despite its “open
discussion” construct. Yet MTV was clearly attempting to exploit a “real”
image of collective critical activity, and despite the regimented nature of the
show, the possibilities of group critical dynamics were very much a part of its
essence; MTV, in encouraging its viewers to imagine the “commercial break”
off-camera discussions, opened up a space for a notion of group critical activ-
ity. In any case, what is at stake here is not MTV’s co-opting of certain aspects
216 andrew dell’antonio

of the group critical process to show itself as participating in youth culture

for its own commercial gain (which is undoubtedly the case), but the pres-
ence and importance of that model as an alternative to a modernist, indi-
vidual, critically distant process.
The “live” MTV viewer comment as occasional running text strip has sur-
vived the cancellation of 12AV: it is a standing feature of the popular daily
request show Total Request Live (hereafter TRL). To be sure, in TRL the com-
ments by viewers (requesting specific videos) are not “live” but pre-recorded,
since requests are taken for an hour prior to the beginning of the show.
TRL’s construct of the live chat comment is so well engrained in MTV visual
rhetoric that it can be entirely orchestrated and still come across as “live”; this
is done in part through the use of live cameras outside the MTV studio,
where teenage fans are permitted to give five-second lead-in comments to
their favorite videos after each video is announced. The “truly live” flavor of
the brief fan comment carries over to the “constructedly live” e-mail requests
that are overlaid as running text during the video.
The goal of the fan/appraiser who calls or e-mails TRL requesting a video,
or who stands outside the studio to make her/his voice heard, is the same as
the goal of the juror from 12AV: the placement of a favored video into “heavy
rotation,” or similar patterns of iterative play. It is significant, I believe, that
iteration is portrayed as an ideal through these instances of the collective
appraisal process. While specific record companies (and artists) gain by the
frequent performance of their videos, MTV has nothing to gain from spe-
cific artists’ success: its goal is to provide its consumers with an iterative yet
continuously changing assortment of “what they like.” To be sure, MTV is
likely to promote only artists that are socially/economically “acceptable” to
what it perceives as its market (no hardcore punk, no country, no lesbian
“women’s folksong” singers or queercore), though the boundaries of that
market are by no means fixed (witness, for example, the continuing expan-
sion of rap and “alternative rock” into the MTV repertory, alongside bub-
blegum boy and girl groups). Still, MTV viewers are clearly glad to oblige the
network with their selections for the videos most worthy of appearing on
TRL, so that the notion of iterative play as an ideal seems to be shared by
MTV and its public. While the idea that an appraiser wants to have access to
a favorite song/video repeatedly over a short span of time is a commonplace
in the reception of popular music (and even some “cultivated” repertories,
as we will explore below), the immersion implied by such a model is inher-
ently incompatible with the critical distance that must underpin structural
listening, since it implies significantly different goals and aesthetic ideals.
Before we go on to speculate on some broader consequences of collective
appraisal strategies, let us briefly consider the commonalities in the collec-
tive listening process as portrayed by MTV in the examples from B&B, Yack
Live, 12AV, and TRL given above:
collective listening 217

1. Although MTV makes a show of encouraging intellectual appraisal

(through its “discussion” of videos), it also appears to encourage appraisal
that is tied to bodily response (perhaps implicitly appealing to a putative
higher “reality” of dance and bodily/visceral/somatic effect in rock, a com-
mon trope in the understanding of rock/pop authenticity; see Davies 1999).
2. Appraisers’ comments tend to focus on the performative aspect, iden-
tifying good/bad moments in the band’s performance as reflected in the
3. Appraisers do indicate an awareness of a potential difference between
the aesthetic appraisal of a song and the video associated with the song, and
the possibilities that the video’s signifying process does not match that of the
song (comments such as “the song is great, but the video was boring” were
frequent on 12AV).
4. Remarks most frequently address visual aspects, and comments about
the sound aspect of a video do not tend to be “musically specific”: that is to
say, listeners do not generally articulate an awareness of specific events in the
sound portion of the video, and they certainly do not indicate a concern with
the structure of musical events.
Overall, these interactions seem to indicate attempts at developing a com-
mon language that will highlight the most important meanings surrounding
a group appraisal of the video.
The non-specificity of the collective process can of course be frustrating
to those accustomed to the “clarity” of technical/analytical accounts of musi-
cal structure. I would maintain, however, that this apparent “inarticulate-
ness” (for lack of a better word) in no way indicates a lack of sophistication
on the part of either the appraisers/critics or the videos they are discussing,
but merely a different set of communicative and interpretative priorities.
For, as I suggested above, in music video (and pop repertories in general) the
process of topic postulation/determination may well be more crucial than
stability of isotopia. Or, as Frith has put it, “the use of language in pop songs
has as much to do with establishing the communicative situation as with com-
municating, and more to do with articulating a feeling than with explaining
it” (Frith 1996, 169). This might explain why the collective critical process
(as reflected in MTV) is so reluctant to engage in specific explanatory lan-
guage about the expressive qualities of a video: the immediacy inherent in
the collective process resonates strongly with rock/pop’s ideal of immediacy,
but would seem to discourage the distancing required for the deployment of
specific explanatory language. Descriptives may be used in the immersive
process of meaning/topic formation—indeed, are required if that process is
to be collective—but lose their efficacy once the text/performance is
removed from the mix. Ultimately, critical distance would be not only unde-
sirable, but indeed lethal to this type of appraisal process.
Turning now briefly from multimedia appraisal to the specific issue of
218 andrew dell’antonio

auditory reception, i.e., listening—what kind of listening experience does

MTV exemplify in the shows discussed above? It is certainly not a detached,
critical, structural type of listening. Indeed, since commentary (sometimes
from more than one source simultaneously) is overlaid onto the video,
adding another layer to the already multilayered text/performance, it is a
distracted sort of listening—with a number of other stimuli, both visual
and aural, competing for the appraiser’s attention. This is of course
entirely in keeping with frequent descriptions of both popular music and
MTV being used as “background” for other activities.15 In the context of
music videos, music thus “risks” becoming the background at a variety of
levels: not only is the listening process merely one component of the
broader multimedia appraisal process, but the video appraisal process may
itself be only one component of several stimuli demanding the listener’s
Overcoming this “danger” of overstimulation by a focus on specific
aspects of the sounds connected to the object of appraisal is part and parcel
of the “structural listening” model, especially as it applies to pedagogical
approaches: the ideal of “active listening”—focusing on “the music itself,”
often with a structural roadmap, is the mainstay of “music appreciation” text-
books in the USA.16 But since the appraisal process for music videos occurs
in a very different context, one in which (as we have seen) focused attention
on the video is not at all the desired effect, we can postulate that the
appraisal strategies best suited to a music video can be deployed even if it is
in the “background”: the Ideal Appraiser for a video can be—perhaps should
be—an unfocused appraiser.17
We might look at this another way. The collective appraisal process
involves a high “noise-to-signal ratio”—that is to say, the interactions
between a group of appraisers do not focus solely on the video at hand, but
include a variety of other topics that are (more or less directly) related to
the appraising process.18 This critical process is thus not a discrete enter-
prise, but rather an activity seamlessly integrated into the appraisers’ daily
life: critical distance is thus not applicable. Furthermore, the process
reflects a breakdown of a stable, discrete notion of “music itself”: music is
one of a wide-ranging group of signifying agents. Given that in the collec-
tive process the notion of focusing on just the music in a video is not viable,
any “musical specificity” of the commentary is out of the question—in this
context, the notion of listening just to the “music itself” doesn’t make any

4.1 The idea of a collective listener/reader for a collective text is incompatible with
Adorno and Horkheimer’s formulations of artistic autonomy or Jameson’s ideal of stable
collective listening 219

subjectivity, but it does seem to mesh with recent theories (such as those of Deleuze and
Guattari) that characterize postmodern subject positions as multiple and shifting.

Some examples of accounts of the breakdown of stable subjectivity have been

covered above, though mostly in a negative light. Gilles Deleuze and Félix
Guattari’s arguments are difficult to summarize (this seems to be a pur-
poseful strategy on their part, as they work to incorporate what they see as
“postmodern” modes of expression in their style as well as their analyses),
but they are considerably more sanguine about the opportunities afforded
by the breakdown of the “oedipal” subject (which they see as quintessentially
modernist). Their description of the “schizophrenic flow” of postmodern
subjectivity appears to resonate with the unpredictability and “unfocused”
nature of the collective appraisal process outlined above:

But through the impasses and the [oedipal] triangles a schizophrenic flow
moves, irresistibly . . . a stream of words that do not let themselves be coded, a
libido that is too fluid, too viscous: a violence against syntax, a concerted
destruction of the signifier, non-sense erected as a flow, polyvocity that returns
to haunt all relations. . . . language is no longer defined by what it says, even
less by what makes it a signifying thing, but by what causes it to move, to flow,
and to explode—desire (Deleuze and Guattari 1977, 133).19

Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “pack-formation” also seems to resonate

with MTV constructions of group identity:

The origin of packs is entirely different from that of families and states: they
continually work them from within and trouble them from without, with other
forms of content, other forms of expression (Deleuze and Guattari 1988, 242).

Deleuze and Guattari theorize that the concept of self-identification as

“anomalous” is the catalyst for an individual’s entrance into the “pack,” and
that such identification is based not on specific allegiances, nor on system-
atic, self-aware individual introspection, but on fluid and loosely-defined
desires: “The anomalous is neither an individual nor a species: it has only
affects” (Deleuze and Guattari 1988, 244). The pack is characterized by what
they define as a “hacceity”—an intersection of collective assemblages. A
member of the pack is not a subject, but a potentiality—“something happens
to them that they can only get a grip on again by letting go of their ability to
say ‘I’ ” (265). Release of self-consciousness is a requirement for an individ-
ual to become an effective member of a “pack”—and, I would argue, of a crit-
ical appraisal collective.
Deleuze and Guattari view the process that individuals undergo in becom-
ing part of a “pack”—a process they refer to as “the becoming”—as more cru-
cial to postmodern subjectivity (if one can still call it that) than the end
220 andrew dell’antonio

result. As they observe, each individual can be seen as belonging to several

“packs,” and each “pack” is defined in relation to an often-undefined “nor-
mative majority.” The very fluidity of “becoming” brings with it the potential
for cultural unpredictability and hence power, despite the inherent margin-
alization of the pack (which depends on being perceived outside the norm
for its very raison d’être).
Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of “pack” certainly resonate strongly with
the constructs of authenticity through rebellion/marginality that are at the
core of rock ’n’ roll culture and, hence, MTV’s self-image through what
Grossberg (1993) has characterized as the appropriation of the “authentic-
ity” of rock culture. Their account of diffusion of ego-focus also fits in with
the characterization of popular music and music video as “background”
music, that is music that does not occupy a listener/consumer’s full attention
(we shall return to these notions below).

4.2 Collective listening strategies may be not so much postmodern as non- modernist;
their presence and premises certainly call into question an idealization of structural lis-
tening as normative practice.

What we have examined so far suggests that the performative texts of music
videos are not suited to a model of structural listening, and that collective lis-
tening strategies (which, I have argued, show traits of subjectivities and
approaches to “objects/phenomena”—texts, performances, etc.—that have
been theorized as “postmodern”) seem to be (or at least are portrayed as
being) uniquely suited to these late twentieth-century multimedia phenom-
ena. Furthermore, Frith argues that incomplete and fragmentary appraisal
is fast becoming the norm for all repertories:
We certainly do now hear music as a fragmented and unstable object. . . . All
music is more often heard now in fragments than completely: we hear slices of
Beatles songs and Bach cantatas, quotes from jazz and blues. Such fragmentary
listening may have as much to do with—may be particularly suited to—indus-
trialization and urbanization as with recording